Charles H. Thornton

The CII Executive Committee has selected Charles H. Thornton as the twenty-third recipient of the Carroll H. Dunn Award of Excellence. As CII’s highest honor, the award recognizes an individual for outstanding accomplishments in improving the construction industry.

Charlie’s creativity, tenacity, and work ethic have led to accomplishments that take shape as brilliant structures in locations around the world. Through his life’s work, and by generously sharing his expertise and lighting the path for young talent, Charlie has propelled our industry forward and elevated our standard of excellence. For these reasons and more, he has exceeded the criteria and secured his place around the table with past Dunn Award recipients.

Charlie was born on April 11, 1940, in the East Bronx area of New York City, the middle son of three born to Evelyn, a housewife, and Charles senior, an electrician and bricklayer. Charles senior, who eventually retired as the chief inspector of the New York City Building Department, was a “recovered hellion” who understood the importance of keeping minds active and bodies busy with work. This explains the first gift that Charlie can remember receiving from his parents: a wheelbarrow.

Due to his father’s work, Charlie was exposed early-on to the world of construction. He can recall piles of bricks, sand, and gravel as a permanent part of the landscape in his yard. Occasionally, Charlie’s father would tell the boys to move the stacks of bricks for reasons that he would not share and were apparent only to him at the time. But in the boys, this activity built character and muscle and resulted in imaginative stacking and innovative processes; a hint of things to come.

Another time, Charles senior salvaged thick pieces of oak shaped like arched bridges from a job site. Charlie and his brothers built and re-built roadway configurations for their toy cars throughout the house until their mother had reached her limit.

From his parents, Charlie learned the value of education, helping others, and honesty. He watched and took note as his father helped neighborhood kids get good union jobs in the construction industry. When Charlie was about 14, he and a friend stole lanterns from a construction site. His friend’s parents resolved the issue through punishment no longer legal in most states, a method which Charlie begged for after his father told him he would have to face the construction site manager, lanterns in tow, and confess his wrongdoings.

Of course, Charlie’s first paying job was in 1954 as a bricklayer’s apprentice. A couple years later, he became a bricklayer, and then a field engineer. At the age of 17, he was measuring 80-foot-deep concrete pours for the foundation of the 66-story Chase Manhattan Bank in lower Manhattan, and by 22, he was a journeyman bricklayer. Charles senior was nearby on many of these early job sites and worked the education angle from all sides: He encouraged the foreman to drive Charlie hard. Meanwhile, to Charlie, he would point out the site engineer, dressed in a suit and able to work inside when the weather vexed the construction workers.

Charlie went on to earn a B.S.C.E. degree from Manhattan College and M.S.C.E. and Ph.D. degrees from New York University, both in New York City. During his college years, he worked to overcome shyness and stage fright. His sophomore undergraduate year provided a turning point when he pledged for a social fraternity and they, in turn, advised him to run for office in professional organizations and manage events. It was during this time that he realized he wanted to lead.

While earning his master’s degree and Ph.D., Charlie worked at a structural engineering firm His first big challenge was as engineer for 14 pavilions for the 1965 World’s Fair. Another of his first major professional accomplishments was as structural engineer for the American Airlines superbay hangars, which won every major structural engineering award at the time for their novel design and the ease and speed of assembly.

In 1977, Charlie and Richard Tomasetti purchased the firm where they worked, re-naming it Thornton-Tomasetti, a name that has become synonymous with world-class structural engineering. Today, Thornton-Tomasetti is a 550-person consulting engineering firm that provides engineering services, failure analysis, hazard mitigation, and disaster response services for projects around the world.

Charlie’s 44 years of experience with Thornton-Tomasetti includes involvement in the design and construction of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of projects in the U.S. and overseas, ranging from hospitals, arenas, and high-rise buildings, to airports, transportation facilities, and special projects. Signature projects include: the New York Hospital, New York; Chicago Stadium (Bulls and Blackhawks arena) and Comiskey Park in Chicago; the Nashville Arena in Nashville; the United Airlines Terminal at O’Hare Airport in Chicago; Terminal #1 at JFK Airport in New York; the 50-story Americas Tower in New York; the 65-story One Liberty Place in Philadelphia; and the 50-story Chifley Tower in Sydney, Australia.

Because of its difficulty and beauty, Charlie’s favorite project is the 95-story Petronas Twin Towers of Kuala Lumpur City Centre in Malaysia. The towers, each containing 2.2 million square feet atop footprints shaped as eight-sided Islamic stars, are built above a caustic limestone cavern, requiring 400-foot pilings. Therein was the difficulty. The beauty is apparent, defining the structure with religious symbolism that honors the Malaysian culture.

Over the years, Charlie has provided expert witness testimony for many clients and litigations and is a recognized expert in the area of collapse and structural failure analysis. He led the engineering team investigation of the causes of the 1978 collapse of the Hartford Coliseum Space Truss Roof and the 1987 collapse of the New York State Thruway Schoharie Bridge. In 1996, he participated in FEMA’s Building Performance Assessment Team to investigate the Oklahoma City bombing, and most recently, he was a member of the oversight team on the NIST study of the World Trade Center Collapse investigation. Through these experiences, he learned that catastrophe is almost always the result of a breakdown in communication, driving him to encourage and nurture communication skills and processes in all venues of his work and influence.

Acknowledging his parents as the secret to his success, Charlie set out to bridge the gap for young people who might not have the same solid family foundation and exposure to the industry. In 1995, he founded the ACE Mentor program, a non-profit organization that offers guidance and training to inner city high school students in architecture, construction, and engineering in cities across the U.S. Right now, there are more than 10,000 students and 3,500 mentors growing through the program and more than 50,000 students have already graduated from the program. Charlie also serves as President of the Salvadori Center, a non-profit that each year educates some 2,000 New York City middle school students in mathematics and science using architectural and engineering principles.

Charlie was recently on the visiting faculty at Princeton University and Manhattan College, and he has also taught at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, and Cooper Union in New York City. He is a member of the Construction Industry Round Table (CIRT) and the National Research Council’s Committee for Oversight and Assessment of Blast-Effects and Related Research. He has served on the Board of Trustees for Manhattan College; the Applied Technology Council (ATC); and the National Institute of Building Science’s Building Seismic Safety Council (BSSC) and Multihazard Mitigation Council (MMC).

Today, Charlie is the Chairman of Charles H. Thornton and Company LLC, a management and strategic consulting firm, Chairman Thornton Termohlen Group, LLC, a project management and developer of industrialized building systems and Chairman of Straam, LLC, a technology company that rapidly assesses the condition of infrastructure. He continues to consult as Founding Principal to Thornton-Tomasetti.

Charlie has received a number of distinguished honors, including: election to the National Academy of Engineering in 1997; named Honorary Member of the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1999; awarded Engineering News-Record’s Award of Excellence 2001; selected to receive the Hoover Medal for 2002; and selected to receive the Benjamin Franklin Medal in Civil Engineering for 2003; elected to membership in the National Academy of Construction in 2005; and elected to Honorary Member of the American Institute of Architects in 2006.

Charlie was married to Patricia Podaski in 1961 and they had three children: Diana, Katherine, and Charles H. Thornton III. Sadly, in 1978, Patricia passed away from Hodgkin’s disease. Charlie re-married and today he and wife Carolyn reside with daughter Becky in an architectural wonder – their dream home – in Easton, Maryland. Charlie has seven grandchildren and a sailboat named – quite aptly – Elegant Solution.

CII is privileged to name Charles H. Thornton a Dunn Award recipient, for his pioneering projects and skyward achievements, for leading others in cheering for academic pursuits, for his contagious enthusiasm in exposing students to our industry through the ACE program, and for his head-on immersion approach to learning and life.

Because of the many ways that Charlie’s professional aspirations and passions have merged, he has achieved the status of revered teacher and industry leader. It’s been said that creativity is intelligence having fun. This is, perhaps, a fit summary of Charlie and the trail he has blazed.