THE LIFE AND TIMES OF “MR. MASPETH” FRANK PRINCIPE
Frank Principe turned 90 on December 5. He was regaled by everyone who is anyone in the community at no less than three birthday parties in his honor. Politicians, business people, community leaders, friends, family, and other well-wishers attended. At 90, Frank, the man known as “Mr. Maspeth” and “Mr. Concrete” because of his devotion to his community and to the industry he spent 40 years in, shows no sign of slowing down and is having fun with his notoriety. Donning a West Maspeth Industrial Park jacket and baseball cap, Frank, the chairman of Community Board 5, joked and reminisced with his friends and admirers. Shortly after, he got the flu, which Frank says was the result of “kissing too many beautiful women” at these functions. Fully recovered now and in good spirits, Frank sat with this reporter for another four hour session about himself. The result in this third installment of his life and times. Here, Frank tells about his role during World War II, the start of his cement company, his fight to keep it from mob control, and his feelings about Franklin Delano Roosevelt. What also emerges is not only a picture of a community and a man, but also Frank’s underlying philosophy of life and the source of how he thinks and what drives him. Add another name to his list, “Mr. Man of a Thousand Anecdotes.”
On December 7, 1941, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor caught the United States by surprise. With a large part of its Navy destroyed and war looming, America needed a new fleet of warplanes quickly. But to build these new aluminum-based fighters, the country first had to build production plants to manufacture the raw material that would go toward constructing these planes. While the country’s two biggest aluminum manufacturers, Reynolds and Alcoa, met the nation’s demands for aluminum during peacetime, the war effort took those needs to a new dimension.
To build an aluminum plant from scratch, you needed land, access to transportation routes to bring in the ore for smelting and send it out to the airplane manufacturers, and having mega-amounts of electricity, which only large cities could produce. The area near what is today’s West Maspeth Industrial Park (of which Frank now oversees) fit the bill. It was largely undeveloped, a swamp in fact, that was close to rail lines and a waterway where barges could ship materials in and out. It was also near enough that it could tap into New York City’s massive electrical supply.
The year 1941 found Frank living in Maspeth with his wife and two children, in a home he and his father, Louis, built, the one he lives in today. He was working as superintendent of construction building a railroad station in Hempstead. He was also selling homes his father had built in Maspeth, but the Great Depression had slowed sales of those homes. Frank wound up with time on his hands.
When the war started, Frank tried to enlist. He asked for a commission as his younger brother, Louis Edward, a lawyer, had done and got. He wanted to build bridges, but the Armed Forces turned him down, saying that at 32, he was too old. Frank said he heard later that they were also worried about his loyalty because he still had family in Italy. “Alright Uncle Sam, I tried,” he said to himself at the time. “I’ll do my part some other way.”
It was a scary and uncertain time. War with Hitler raged in Europe. In nearby Ridgewood, Nazi sympathizers marched openly through the streets. Sales were down including among Jews who didn’t want to buy homes anywhere near it, including someplace called the “Ridgewood Plateau,” even though it was technically in Maspeth, Frank says. Local residents read the newspapers and listened to the radio. They tried to make sense out of current events and the things happening around them, especially stories about the soldiers in Europe returning home in body bags.
“We were like a group of children without a teacher,” Frank says about those times. “We were all inwardly worried and frightened about what was happening and what would become of us.”
Roosevelt, who had close ties with Britain’s leader, Winston Churchill, was edging the country towards war by supporting Britain and France against Germany. “The man on the street didn’t know what to think,” Frank said.
But when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, that “solidified us,” Frank remembers, although he thinks Roosevelt deliberately “baited” the Japanese to attack and “set it up” so as to push the U.S. to enter the war on the side of the Allies.
“You can’t put all your eggs in one basket,” Frank said of the Navy docking virtually the entire fleet at Pearl Harbor prior to the attack. “He did it on purpose.”
Frank says Roosevelt was “never a favorite” of his, despite Roosevelt’s help in getting Frank and his father the first Federal Housing Administration loan in the country. “Roosevelt did things that did not make sense,” Frank says, pointing to the president’s order telling farmers to burn their wheat despite wholesale hunger during the Depression. Frank says the Work Projects Administration, which created jobs for the unemployed in the construction trades, was a “glorified welfare” program.
Frank says Roosevelt set the tone for big government and wasteful spending. He called Roosevelt’s New Deal a sham that did little for the working man and forced employers to pay for workers who didn’t work. “We never had coffee breaks before,” he said.
Frank said Roosevelt, by creating agencies that competed with private industry, drove up salaries, and caused inflation and “tremendous debt.” Looking back, Frank grudgingly concedes that Roosevelt also did some good things, such as creating Social Security to help seniors, an idea with merit but fraught with problems in practice. Americans pay into it, but yet the Social Security fund is still underfunded and the government is forced to “borrow from itself” to keep it afloat. It’s “a gimmick,” he says, adding that he also despises excessive government spending on such things as inane studies like the one that examined the effect of cow flatulence on the environment.
“Once your money leaves you, the government has it so it can find out about the farting of cows,” joked Frank, now a member of Citizens Against Government Waste, a group that reports on government spending, “It’s not as good as putting your money into a business enterprise.”
Frank also tells an amusing story about how he was once called upon to build a ramp for the paralyzed Roosevelt at the Brooklyn Academy of Music during the president’s visit with local Democrats.
Despite being told that only Roosevelt – in his wheelchair – would use the ramp. Frank built it strong anyway, as is his perfectionist custom. On the night of the event, Frank stood in the wings watching as a limousine full of heavyset judges walked over the ramp, causing Frank some “anxious moments” worrying if the ramp would hold. It did, thankfully, Frank says with a smile.
When the war started, Frank got a call from a friend who said they were building an aluminum plant in Maspeth – on Maspeth Avenue below Rust Street near the Maspeth Creek – and that the country needed his help. Frank jumped at it, having a civil engineering degree and construction experience, Frank was third in command. He helped clear the site, built a new sewer, and supervised the construction of the 16 separate structures that would house the aluminum producing equipment and their installation.
This was all done with the utmost security, and with trainloads of silver – used to make electrical conductors – on site, Frank was always running into a rifle-toting Federal Bureau of Investigation agent lurking about.
The silver was transformed into 3” x 12” bars and taken from Fort Knox to Maspeth by train. Maspeth became one of the largest silver depositories in the country,” Frank says. “Silver was all over the place,” said Frank, laughing at the memory. “One time we put some silver bars in a wheel barrow and it tipped over into the mud. We just picked it up as if it was nothing. After all, you couldn’t very well steal it. But, you should have seen the FBI guy get excited.”
Frank says the plans for the plant were sent from a plant already built on the west coast. Because of the time considerations, the west coast builders sent a blueprint, which showed the intricate design plans in inverted form, a wrinkle the Maspeth builders couldn’t stop to correct. In effect, they had to read the plans upside down, Frank said.
To heat the ore to some 1500 degrees, electricity from Con Ed’s Hudson Street plant in Williamsburgh was used. Frank said the authorities devised stories about enemy bombers and submarines off the coast to justify “dimouts” so that electricity to power the plant could be siphoned off.
“We worked day and night,” remembers Frank. “We never had to push anybody. After all, the war was on and we had to finish. The government was always pushing us to finish.”
He also remembers having to work all night to repair a broken conveyor belt during New Year’s Eve 1943. But, that March, the first aluminum batches were shipped out of the new plant. “With everyone working as one, it was a wonderful experience,” Frank says, his face beaming with delight at the memory.
After the war and having served its function, the Alcoa plant was mothballed and lay virtually dormant after it was used to store surplus equipment for a time. The property was auctioned off in the late 1940s and then torn down to make way for more modern manufacturing factories.
With all available raw materials like steel put into the war effort, it was a difficult time in the construction trades with builders being forced to use inferior materials, Frank says. “You couldn’t build a doghouse today with the materials they used at the time,” Frank said. He had a number of offers, and worked for one company as a bidder pulling up the steel railroad ties from Long Island City streets.
But Frank said he was tired of working for other people and saw, despite the temporary lack of raw materials, that there was a need to build factories. So, not knowing what he would do, he sought out a site for some type of business venture. He found a site along the Newtown Creek in Long Island City, a former cement company, and filed it away in his brain.
In 1945, a few short months after his father died, Frank went on a religious retreat to Jamaica, NY with the Italian Society of Guardians, which worked with abandoned and abused children. It was there that he met one of his father’s friends, Vincenzo “Jim” Delia, who also had an interest in starting a business and saw in the younger Principe great things to come as the two talked for hours. “God sent me a savior,” Frank said of Delia.
Delia had money, having built an empire selling cloth rags to the government during the war, the rags being used to wipe down everything from jeeps to toilet seats. He like Frank’s idea about buying the former cement company in Long Island City and bankrolled the purchase of the property, for a sum that Frank refuses to disclose.
Delia also asked Frank if he would take on a partner – his son-in-law who was a former Air Force captain who survived the crash of his B-52 bomber in the Pacific. “He was lucky to be alive,” says Frank.
Frank warned the young captain, Frank Danna, that the hours they would work would be grueling and that they might not see a dime of profit for at least a year. Danna said he was willing to try and the Principe-Danna Cement Company was founded with Frank being the “outside man” who dealt with the drivers and business end and Danna handling production. “We were a good team,” he said.
We heard about an old fleet of trucks in New Jersey that was for sale. The four trucks were rusted and banged up, and none of the parts matched, Frank said, but they were cheap. In time, the fleet grew until the company had as many as 45 trucks.
But, Frank said getting to the point of success was a difficult road, with trucks breaking down all the time and having no spare parts to fix them, Frank said he patched, and fixed and welded, and “never gave up hope” about returning for another day. Eventually, he took out a loan and invested in a new fleet of trucks, with matching parts. It was a gamble, Frank says, but it paid off.
Over the years, Frank’s company poured concrete for the World Trade Center, the Javits Center, Madison Square Garden, Roosevelt Island, JFK Airport, the 63 Street subway tunnel and a host of other places. Frank says proudly that he always had an honest reputation, charging customers for the “best concrete in the city.” He was respected in the industry by his peers and became president of the Concrete Industry Board, earning himself the name “Mr. Concrete.”
It was no secret that the concrete industry was controlled by organized crime, which also controlled the union and the workers. Frank said he avoided serious run-ins by avoiding direct competition with mob-run outfits. In the beginning, Frank says, his company was too small to pose any threat, but as he got bigger, they tried to use intimidation to make him “toe the mark,” but never succeeded.
His biggest problem came when negotiating union contracts, when the union representatives added conditions and requirements that amounted to harassment, Frank said. “That was the way they tried to undercut me,” he said.
Frank said that when he went to union negotiations, he would take notes. “They wondered what I was writing,” Frank said, but he wouldn’t show it to them. “They were afraid of me,” he said. “I was Mr. Clean.” During labor disputes or disruptions, Frank said he told one union delegate to “go screw.” He dared him to “call a cop” if he thought he was wrong or had broken any laws.
During those days, Frank said there were many nights when he and his family ate dinner “without the lights on” and he always worried that someone might take a shot at him through his kitchen window. No one ever did, he says thankfully, and he never got any threatening notes. “I always thought that one day I would get a convincing visit,” he said. “But it never happened.”
Frank said he thinks what saved him was his honest reputation. “They figured it was better to leave me alone,” he said. Also, Frank says they didn’t try to shakedown his customers either because they had their own, draining them of thousands of dollars each year.
Frank said the secret to his success was a simple one: keep the customer happy. He said he always got a better price for his product because of its quality, his dependability and “behaving like a gentlemen. I would move heaven and earth for my customers.”
Part IV, the final installment in this series, will focus on Frank’s civic accomplishments and take the story of this “Man of the Century” into modern times.