A Friend of Architecture

Sal in SOM’s Chicago mailroom in the 1970s. All photos courtesy Sal Mescino.

In March of 1968, Lyndon B. Johnson was President of the United States, the John Hancock Center would soon break ground, and Apollo 11 hadn’t yet landed on the moon. That year, Salvatore Mescino, known to most as “Sal,” joined Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. The firm’s Chicago office was then located in the recently completed Inland Steel Building — the first tower with air conditioning in downtown Chicago.

Fifty years on, Sal has become a pillar of the Chicago office. A five-foot-tall Italian-American powerhouse, Sal was raised in Sicily before immigrating to Chicago. He has spent his career working with SOM’s operations team as a mail coordinator, security guard, switchboard operator, driver, and jack of all trades. He once invited an Elvis impersonator to an SOM holiday party.

Known by hundreds of current and former staff, Sal is synonymous with SOM’s Chicago office. In March of 2018, he celebrated his retirement after a formidable career. We sat down with Sal to talk about what’s kept him at SOM for half a century.

Tell us how you started at SOM.

Sal Mescino: I came from Sicily, Italy, as a student and went to YMCA College, where I took English for foreign students. Later, I went to Northwestern University in Chicago. I got married here, and realized I needed to get to work. I became friends with a guy who introduced me to an architect he knew at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.

He took me to the office at the Inland Steel Building and toured me around, introducing me to many people, including a woman from human resources. I told her, “I’m married and graduating soon, I need to work.” “What about working in the mailroom?” she asked. Gratefully, I accepted. That’s how I started. That was March 27th, 1968. I was 25; today I’m 76.

Sal’s first day at SOM, in 1968. The firm’s Chicago office was then located at the Inland Steel Building.

You’ve also developed a family connection to the firm. Can you tell us about that?

That’s a funny story. At one point, the company decided to buy a Cadillac. The partners asked me to find a driver. I suggested my brother, Joe. After years of developing a strong friendship, my brother became Bruce Graham’s driver. Joe grew up with the team at SOM, and they grew up with Joe. SOM became part of his family — he worked here for nearly 20 years.

My daughter also worked at SOM, as an intern. She went to school for marketing, and when she needed an internship, she was welcomed into the SOM family. My son Mario spent several summers with other students working in our archive. My son Francesco worked in the IT department. And my daughter-in-law Kathy worked as an assistant project manager — all in the Chicago office!

Sal’s brother Joe, a driver at SOM for 20 years, behind the wheel of the firm’s Cadillac limousine.

How has your job changed over the years?

When I started at SOM, my boss was about to retire. He taught me everything, including how to maintain the archive. I like art, so that was my room. When they finished a project, everything came to us: prints, files, everything. After one year, I took over the mailroom and the archive.

I was like a kid in candy land — I loved to get those original working drawings, to see it all done by hand.

Years later, when we were working on a big project in the Middle East, I managed two mailrooms, with 32 staff. That included messengers, drivers… there were people assigned just to the fax machine. It was tremendous!

When technology arrived, my role changed a lot, particularly in the archive. We used to do everything by hand. I was like a kid in candy land — I loved to get those original working drawings, to see it all done by hand.

You’re one of the few remaining staff who has met the founding partners, Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill.

That’s true! I met Nathaniel Owings once, on a visit to the Chicago office. He signed a book for me.

After 50 years, I’ve worked with many important figures at SOM. In the early days, I worked with Myron Goldsmith, Bruce Graham, Walter Netsch, and William Hartmann. When I started, Fazlur Khan hadn’t joined SOM yet. He came when we started working on the John Hancock Center.

This is my third generation of partners that I’m working with. Because of my age, I was like a son to the first generation. The second and third generations grew up with me. I had a beautiful relationship with all of them.

On the roof of Chicago’s AT&T Building (now called the Franklin Center) at its topping-out ceremony, circa 1988.

What was it like to work with Bruce Graham and Fazlur Khan?

I loved working with them. On my 20th anniversary, Bruce Graham came to me and said, “Sal, you’re doing a good job, but you know something? You are a friend of architecture.” Dr. Khan became the closest to my family. My brother drove Dr. Khan, too. They were inseparable.

Is it true that Fazlur Khan visited your parents’ house in Italy?

One day in the early 1980s, Dr. Khan called my brother and I into his office. “We’ve decided to have our annual meeting in Sicily,” he said. “I want to meet your parents!” I looked at my brother and said, “Is he kidding?”

After the meeting in Sicily, Dr. Khan and his wife rented a car and drove to my childhood home in the town of Taormina to meet my parents. When he arrived, he told them, “Mr. and Mrs. Mescino, you have two nice sons.” He planned to continue his journey up the road, but my mom insisted they stay. They sat down, had coffee, and my parents cooked for them — they stayed all day! I don’t know what she cooked, but I know that they loved it, because my mom was a tremendous cook. They enjoyed themselves so much that they promised to go back. Knowing that Dr. Khan visited my house is a moment I’ll never forget.

Structural engineer Fazlur Khan on a visit to Sal’s family home in Taormina, Sicily, with Sal’s mother (left) and Khan’s wife (right).

You must have a lot of favorite memories of working here.

I have a lot of favorite memories. With this company, friendship was very important to me. Between the staff, three generations of partners, talented individuals that came by, and numerous, numerous messengers, I have more favorite memories than I can recall.

How many people do you think you’ve worked with at SOM all this time?

It’s hard to say — in the thousands. Architects like to get experience, and you know, working at Skidmore is the best experience for architects to have, because they’re the world leader for architecture.

What is the strangest thing you’ve been asked to do since working here?

My brother was sick one day, so I had to drive one of our vendors, Mr. Mariotti, an Italian, to Milwaukee. During the trip, he said, “Salvatore, can you stop someplace where I can get really American food?” I saw a sign on the road for a truck stop. I ordered him a hamburger, French fries, and a Coke. I have never seen anybody enjoy a hamburger and fries like he did.

You’ve also gone to some lengths to deliver the mail.

Once, we had a project in Montreal. We did promotional books, and we were doing our own reproductions, but we could not put them in the mail. They said, “Sal, can you take this to Montreal?” I put the books in a suitcase, and off I went to our office in Montreal. When I got there, our office staff couldn’t understand how I got the books through customs without being charged duty. After that, they told me, “You have to come all the time.” I ended up going to Toronto a few times, too.

Who is the most interesting person that you met while working here?

There are a few. Once, George Harrison came in, but I missed him. I would’ve liked to meet him. My wife is a big fan of the Beatles. I met Ronald Reagan and Neil Armstrong at an annual forum hosted by our office movers — I got their autographs.

Working in the mail business, and as a member of the Postal Customer Council, I had the chance to meet the Postmaster of the United States a few times. Decades ago, I also met two gentlemen who had created a new door-to-door mail service called Federal Express. They offered to bring SOM on as an early customer. Our account is one of oldest at FedEx. I wish I had bought stocks!

What’s kept you at SOM for 50 years?

I get asked this question a lot. Usually, I answer with a joke, saying, “It’s 12 o’clock — I’ve only been here for four hours!”

People like to ask me what it takes for somebody to be part of an organization for 50 years. I thought about it, and I came up with a four-letter word: love. Love for the job I was hired to do.

Work every day like it’s your first day on the job. Not the second day, always the first day.

What do you look forward to most in your retirement?

First of all, I need to clean up my house. I have four kids, all married, and everybody left everything behind. Now they have beautiful places of their own, and they come to my house. Next, I’m going to Italy. I still have family in Sicily — my sister, my brother, my family home. We usually go for four weeks, but now we’ll go for two months or more.

What advice would you give to someone who’s just beginning their career at SOM?

Work every day like it’s your first day on the job. Not the second day, always the first day. And if there comes a day when you say, “Dammit, I have to go to work,” that day, you have to quit. If those words come from your mouth, then you don’t belong there. You need to be happy to go to work if you want to continue what you’re doing.

Maybe everybody will remember that “tall” Sicilian that smiled a lot and loved his job. I work like it’s my first day on the job — all the time.

Sal in the Chicago office mailroom, March 2018.

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