DURING THE 1950S AND ’60S, Sundt also began to diversify its operations. In 1953 the company entered the heavy construction field with two projects. The first was a joint venture contract to build a runway at Tucson’s Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. The 11,500-foot-long, 200-foot-wide runway was needed for the Air Force’s first jet bomber, the B-47 Stratojet. The second project was a highway near McNary, Arizona.

Over the ensuing years, the company would become one of the West’s leading heavy construction contractors. In addition to roads and runways, Sundt would build major freeways, bridges, dams, and underground utilities across Arizona and in several neighboring states.

Cold War Construction Includes Missile Launch Facilties

The company became one of the country’s major contractors for missile launch facilities in the late 1950s, when it was the low bidder on Phase 1 of the Titan II construction work at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. This project, which consisted of three silos, was a prototype for all the following Titan II construction work that would be done in other parts of the U.S. The Titan II silo design partly came about because of problems with the Titan I that showed up when a missile in the first silo that Sundt had built at Vandenberg exploded halfway in the silo and halfway out. No one was sure whether it was going up or coming down at the time it exploded. Fingers were being pointed by other contractors (who were involved with the Titan I program) as to who was responsible for the failure. Parts of the structure were never found, and in the end no determination of fault was ever made.

The Titan II program was on a crash schedule because of the Cold War politics. In his memoir, Bob Sundt wrote that this caused the project to move faster than the paperwork could be generated.

“The hard-dollar part of the project that was done by M.M. Sundt on the concrete structure was one the government was able to design and put out for bid,” he wrote. “However, when you got into the next phase of the work, which started to get into all the controls, cryogenic piping, electrical, and items of that type for the missile silo it was a much different story. The LA District of the U.S. Army Corps
of Engineers decided they needed a general contractor to step in as the construction manager for the Titan II Phase II and Phase IIA work. The District had a very high respect for M.M. Sundt Construction Company and Matich Brothers, and selected the joint venture team to follow on as the construction manager.”

Another of Sundt’s signature missile jobs came in November 1963, when a joint venture between Sundt and Blount Construction paid off. It was to build Launch Pad 39-A at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Their winning bid was $19.1 million. The closest bid to this was from Morris-Knudsen Company, whose bid was $3.5 million higher.

“To say the least, the difference between our bid and that of MK really caught everyone’s attention,” Bob Sundt said. “However, on further analysis the estimators felt that the bid would be okay and we accepted award of the project from the Corps of Engineers.”

The Cape Canaveral job was one that Sundt would not have tried for alone, he recalled, but Blount Construction asked Sundt to join them because the contract documents required the bidder to have experience with cryogenic piping. Blount did not have that experience, but thanks to its work on the Titan jobs at Vandenberg, Sundt did.

Landmark Tucson High Rise

Another major project during this period was a landmark Tucson high-rise. In February 1964, Sundt was told it was going to get the job of building the Tucson Federal Savings Building, which would be Tucson’s first skyscraper at 20 stories. But shortly after the contract was signed, a serious hitch appeared. On one corner of the property a Walgreens drug store stood. The manager did not want to move, and the contract he had with the property owner, Tucson Federal Savings, gave him the right to remain in place until the lease expired. Work proceeded on the 20-story building, with a major design change: The building went up four stories, and then was cantilevered out and over the Walgreens building. In addition to this change, there was a fire-protection problem. The new building would certainly meet fire protection standards, but the much older Walgreens building did not. Construction was well along before this problem was discovered, and it caused much consternation in Sundt headquarters before they found that fire-protection requirements could be met by installing a sprinkler system and special high-fire-rating material in the Walgreens building.

Mining Spurs More Sundt Diversification

During the 1960s there was a surge in copper usage, and if Arizona has an abundance of anything other than sand and saguaro cactus, it is copper ore. Open-pit copper mines are found in nearly all parts of the state. Seeing this trend, Sundt decided to diversify again, this time into projects for Arizona’s mines and later its electric utilities as well.

The impetus for this was the company’s initial success in obtaining maintenance work for ASARCO’s copper smelter at Hayden. This was the start of a long and successful relationship with ASARCO, and led to additional work opportunities with other mining operations in Arizona and elsewhere in the region.