06: The Architecture of Fireworks

 

Hightower Texas has about 80,000 miles of highways. That’s a lot of road and there’s lots to see off to either side of these ribbons of asphalt. In the spring there are the bluebonnets. In the summer there are the trucks selling peaches and watermelons. But throughout the year you’ll also find a series of narrow shed buildings set perpendicular to the road. For 48 weeks out of year, these structures sit closed and empty. And then for a few weeks before the Fourth of July and the First of January, they spring to life.

 

Trailers are parked nearby. Lights are hung as empty gravel lots become filled with customers. Flaps that were previously locked shut are opened, revealing a colorful array of fireworks displayed inside.

 

Firework stands represent a curious building type, but one that is a ubiquitous part of the Texas landscape. That’s what we’re going to talk about on this, the sixth episode of The Works – a podcast about Architecture, those who create it and those who inhabit it.

 

I’m Brantley Hightower.

 

Fireworks, of course, were invented in China during the Tang Dynasty and they have been associated with American Independence ever since. Well, maybe not ever since the 7th century, but at least ever since there was an Independence Day to celebrate.

 

Exactly one year after the Declaration of Independence was signed the Philadelphia Evening Post, reported that the city enjoyed “a grand exhibition of fireworks… with… the city was beautifully illuminated.”

 

The general public soon found that actively discharging fireworks was more enjoyable than passively watching trained professionals do it. And so by 1783 fireworks began to be made available to the general population.

 

To learn more about today’s fireworks marketplace, I spoke with Luke Girdley of Alamo Fireworks. He explained how they are regulated by state governments who dictate when, where and what kind of fireworks can be sold to the public.

 

Luke There is all different laws in all different states. There are things you can sell in Nevada that you can’t sell here. There’s things that you can’t sell in New Hampshire than you can sell here. New Hampshire is open year-round whereas we’re not. It varies. Some states will even let you sell in tents. Arizona let’s you sell in tents but you can’t sell things that go into the air – you can only do fountains and stuff like that. We’re very customized to the market in Texas.

 

Hightower And the law in Texas states that fireworks can only be sold at retail during the two weeks prior to Independence Day and the two weeks prior to New Years Day. That creates a huge business challenge. It means those with a license to sell fireworks must be able to staff a large number of geographically dispersed stands for the 28 days out of the year that they are actually allowed to sell their product.

 

Luke So our business structure is we either lease or own the land. And then we contract to people just like you would hire a plumber or an electrician – they are independent contractors – so they’re responsible for getting their own help, their own security. But we provide a turnkey operation so we provide the site, the stand, the advertising, the merchandise. And the operator – that’s what we call them, the independent contractor – sells the products on consignment. Then whatever they don’t sell they bring back to us. The differences between what we sent to them and what they bring back is their sales. And for our stand operators there’s a 20% discount on what they sell and that’s how they make their money. But they’re running their own small business.

 

Hightower In other words, independent operators are assigned a particular stand on a particular piece of land. They are provided with an inventory to sell on consignment. For this to work, Alamo Fireworks requires a unique architectural solution. They need to be able to deploy a large number of fireworks stands that are portable, durable and effectively display fireworks for the brief period of time when they are allowed to be sold.

 

Luke gave me a tour of one of Alamo’s 350  stands at his company’s headquarters on the east side of San Antonio.

 

Luke This is one of the older style ones. They are in eight-foot sections. You look at this one they’re four eight-foot sections so it’s a 32-foot stand…

 

Hightower Against the back wall of the stand there are angled shelves for products that don’t stack easily. Then there is a narrow aisle where the operator stands and a counter in front of the large opening where fireworks are exchanged for money. That opening can be closed and locked by lowering a large flap when the stand itself is closed.

 

The exterior of newer Alamo Fireworks stands sport corrugated plastic paneling that is printed with the Alamo logo. This replaced the stenciled spray-painted logos that had adorned the sides of their stands for years.

 

Luke It gives it more of a professional feel rather than a “carnie” feel and helps differentiate our stands because we take a lot of effort in order to make our stuff better than our competitors so we don’t want to look like our competitors when someone’s driving by our stands.

 

Hightower Up until a few years ago, most of Alamo’s stands were built of wood. They were built upon a steel frame that acted as the stand’s foundation.

 

Luke It’s like a long 40’ sled and on top of that sled you would build a structure. Most of the time it’s made out of wood. Those used to be pretty cheap. Now with the Eagle Ford Shale… the price of metalworking has gone up a lot. So we’ve started buying shipping containers and customizing those to fit our needs.

 

Hightower Also know as “intermodal containers”, these large, industrial-grade metal boxes are used to ship products around the world. They can be quickly unloaded off of ships and placed directly on trains or trucks for delivery inland. Because of the current US trade imbalance, there is a surplus of shipping containers piling up near American ports. Since there is an oversupply, a 40’ shipping container can be purchased for just a few thousand dollars.

 

Architects have for years tried to figure out how to make shipping containers into architecture. Their dimensions aren’t ideal for dwellings, but it turns out they are perfect for fireworks stands.

 

Luke The upside for shipping containers is that they’re wider, so you can fit more stuff in them. They are more durable. So we take them out to a place and if it’s sitting there year-round - wood will rot or paint will peal or so forth. Shipping containers are meant to sit outside all day for a long period of time without repair.

 

The downside would be they’re heavier so carting them around is more expensive and if they have to be repaired they’re more costly to repair.

 

Hightower Luke showed me around one of these new shipping-container-based stands that had recently been modified.

 

Luke So this is one of the new container stands. We do woodwork. So someone has to come and cut out the windows and then there’s woodwork to reinforce the areas that are cut. And then if we look inside the container the width – this is noticeably wider than the older stands. So these are meant more for higher volume locations or ones where the stand is going to sit out there year-round.

 

Hightower Talking to Luke helped me understand the business side of fireworks stands, but I wanted to learn more about the human side of it. What is it like to operate one of these stands? I talked to some of the independent operators Luke referred to, but for the sake of fairness I decided to talk to some of Alamo’s competitors who work for the other local fireworks distributor, Mr. W.

 

Mike Johnson operates a stand on US Highway 281, just north of the county line. His stand is one of the older, wooden types.

 

Mike I have a double stand. You are on the outside of the window. There is a 4x8 board that is the flap for one of the windows. This stand has 8 different windows that size and I have in the two stands that I maintain they are end-to-end they are a mirror image of all the fireworks I have available to sell. The initial allocation is what you see here today and it’s a pretty good assortment. But my next shipment which will come in this afternoon or tomorrow will pretty much double the number of fireworks that I have available. and I’ll have to shift and make room for twice as many fireworks as we have here right now.

 

Hightower To the untrained observer, the fireworks appear to be randomly organized, but Mike actually has a systemized order to his inventory.

 

Mike Little kids stuff is typically on the bottom row. Stuff on the next row up has got a lot of the noisemaking things and it’s stuff on the top shelf are typically the bigger things and I put some of those on the floor as well. And those are the high-flying, big-boom, many-minutes-of-fun-per-firework and its just that’s how we have it set up.

 

Hightower A whole lot of fireworks.

 

Obviously, Mike doesn’t get the Fourth of July off. He doesn’t get the 5th off either. In fact, the 5th is of his busiest days.

 

Mike July 5th is as hard of a day working for me as the 4th is because that’s the day I have to box everything up that didn’t sell, organize it, box it up, load it back on the vehicle that’s going to take it back to Mr. W and then I have to reconcile my sales with them, so it’s a long day for me on the 5th as well. The 6th is my relax day and then I do nothing.

 

Hightower As I spoke with several other operators the week before Independence Day, it became apparent that until a day or two before the holiday in question, the life of a firework stand operator was defined mostly by waiting. Several operators were reading books or newspapers while they were waiting for customers, but others were entertaining their families. When I visited one stand in particular, I was quickly surrounded by a small gang of children.

 

Jessie I’m Jessie, age 17.

 

Levi I’m Levi and I’m 14.

 

Elizabeth I’m Elizabeth and I’m age 12.

 

Josiah I’m Josiah, I’m 11 years old.

 

Grayson I’m Grayson and I’m 10 years old.

 

Phoenix Phoenix.

 

Hightower There were a few other kids there as well whose name I didn’t get on tape. I was told several times how they were all related but to be perfectly honest, I never quite got it straight.

 

Anyway, for the adults in charge of the fireworks stand, the four weeks they spend out by the highway represent an opportunity to make some money, but it also has come to be an important time to spend together as a family. Laura, who is the mother of some of the children I mentioned and aunt to the rest of them, put it this way.

 

Laura My favorite memories are just all hanging out in the camper together and watching the kids play ball out here and just working together and seeing who can have the most excitement about the outhouse.

 

Hightower Scott, who is or father - or at least the uncle - of the children feels the same way.

 

Scott Once you get the stand set up you have about a week of just downtime - just hanging out and throwing the ball and going to get some pizzas and just talking and hanging out in the trailer and you know it’s just a – it really is just a good hang-out family time and that’s what I enjoy.

 

Hightower For the kids, it’s a great deal. The monotony of summer gets broken up and they get to spend a few weeks camping with their siblings and their cousins. Granted it’s on the side of a highway and they have to work, but when you’re a kid, your standards for fun are lower. Besides, customers can be a great source of fun. Just ask Elizabeth.

 

Elizabeth And so last year and, like, when we were doing New Years, the boss he told us that when anyone asked about the fireworks say, “they’re loud and pretty.” And so I had a customer and they asked “what does this do” and I went up to their face really close and said, “It’s loud and pretty.”

 

Hightower The Mr. W with all the kids is one of the first fireworks stands located outside of the city limits of San Antonio. It sits on a slight hill and has a nice view back towards town. On the evening of July 4th as midnight approaches and they are making their final sales, Laura likes to look out over San Antonio and see it illuminated by flashes of light.

 

Laura At the end of the night we’ll get to see the whole city and all the fireworks going off, so that will be really cool.

 

Hightower For just a few weeks out of the year, Fireworks stands are transformed from empty shells into lively centers of celebration, commerce and family. And the fireworks sold there go on to transform the city even if it’s just for an evening. Sure there are the momentary flashes of colored light, but more importantly, these pyrotechnic displays change the sound of the city.

 

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m not a big fireworks guy. Sure I played with a sparkler or two back in the day, but it just wasn’t something I did with my family. That said, I do remember going to bed after a full day of parades, hot dogs and ice cream. I remember hearing the muffled booms of fireworks being set off by people in my neighborhood. It’s a sound I enjoy as an adult as well. The street I live on today is typically pretty quiet. But twice a year it is acoustically transformed. And that transformation is made possible by a peculiar building type that exists as an artifact of one government’s restriction on devices used to celebrate the declaration of independence from another, older government.

 

Happy July 4th everyone.

 

Thanks today to Luke Girdley of Alamo Fireworks as well as all the people I spoke with at Mr. W Fireworks stands. I appreciate all the help in creating my first holiday-themed podcast. August 5th is National Mustard Day so I’d better get cracking on that.

 

As always, special thanks to Julie Pizzo Wood who came up with our podcast’s logo and to Clara, my car-pool partner, with coming up with its name.

 

Today’s music was by Chris Zabriskie while the Dallas String Quartet provided the special instrumental version of Katy Perry’s “Firework”. The Dallas String Quartet - as it’s name would imply - is a Dallas-based electric quartet who mix classical music with top 40 songs. They’re a lot of fun and their music is available on iTunes.

 

While on iTunes, do subscribe to this podcast and feel free to leave a rating for us there as well.

 

The Works is a production of HiWorks and you can find more information about it and everything we’ve talked about today at HiWorksArchitecture.com.

 

Until next time, I’m Brantley Hightower.