Lads of Liberty: Douglas Phelps, President of Phelps Construction Group
Posted July 1, 2019
Earlier this month, the new Statue of Liberty Museum opened on Liberty Island with experience and exhibits by ESI Design. The new museum is part of a $100 million Liberty Island-wide beautification effort that is funded by our clients, The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation.
To celebrate, we’re sharing the stories of some of the talented people who have worked for over five years to bring this world-class museum from concept to completion.
In this edition, you’ll hear from Douglas Phelps, President of Phelps Construction Group, who lead the construction of the museum structure. Douglas considers the museum to be his “greatest achievement,” and is excited that visitors now have the opportunity to learn about the Statue’s history and what it represents.
Name: Douglas G. Phelps
Job Title: President, Phelps Construction Group
Years of Experience: 35
Nationality: United States
Languages Spoken: English and the ability to order a beer in most languages.
Education: Bachelor of Arts in Economics from Syracuse University.
What was your first encounter with the Statue of Liberty?
Douglas Phelps, President of Phelps Construction Group: I was 25 years old and I relocated from Rochester, New York to New Jersey. In that first year I was a tourist, visiting all the sights in New York City. The day we went out to the Statue of Liberty, I remember waiting in a long line to climb the stairs all the way to the crown and look out of a small window. And I do remember thinking, “Is this all there is to do here?” I could have never imagined that I would play a role in changing that.
What was your role on the project? What did that mean for you day-to-day?
DP: I was involved in the project very early on doing the pre-construction phase, but the project really began for me when we broke ground at the end of 2016 and started the work on site.
My typical day on this project starts with an early morning drive to Liberty State Park, going through security to get on to Ellis Island, then catching a staff ferry over to Liberty Island. After that routine, I don’t think any two days on the project were the same for me. My day-to-day responsibility was always the same: keep the project team moving forward, solve any problems and remove any obstacles. Every day those things involved something different. With any project, there are problems and obstacles, but when building a new museum on a small island in New York harbor under a lot of oversight, the challenges tend to get magnified. We had a great team working on this project and everyone took such pride in being part of this team. As such, there was nothing we could not overcome.
At times in the project my responsibilities also included representing my firm and the museum to the public and the press, which was something brand new to me, but all a part of the great adventure of building this magnificent new museum.
You just opened a new museum for the Statue of Liberty — how does that feel? What does that mean to you?
DP: I have been involved in many important projects over my career, but never a project that has meant as much to me as the Statue of Liberty Museum. For my firm to be given the opportunity by the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation to build this museum was a great honor.
As we got closer to finishing the project, I would come to learn that we weren’t just building this Museum for the Foundation, but we were building it for our country and the world, so that everyone can learn about Liberty. Building this museum has been my greatest achievement and I don’t think I have really wrapped my head around the idea that someday my grandchildren will visit this museum and know their grandfather built it.
Why is having a museum dedicated to the Statue of Liberty important?
DP: The Statue of Liberty Museum has substantially increased the visitor experience on Liberty Island. For the first time, visitors to the Statue of Liberty will really learn the story of how the Statue came to be and the meaning of liberty. My hope is that the opening of the Museum will encourage the local, tri-state area residents out to visit the island, many for the first time.
After working on this project, has your concept of liberty evolved?
DP: I believe that we, as Americans, all take liberty for granted. It was something I really didn’t think about before this project. Now, I reflect almost every day on how lucky I am to have the liberty to pursue the future I want for myself and my children.
Do you have a unique/special connection to Lady Liberty?
DP: I certainly do now!
What were the steps in your journey to this iconic project?
DP: I grew up in a small town in upstate New York, just outside of Rochester. After attending Syracuse University, I relocated to the NYC area and went to work for a general contracting firm. I worked there for 23 years, eventually becoming a partner. I left in 2007 to form Phelps Construction Group. I had a relationship with the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation through my previous job and in 2012 we were selected by them to build the Peopling of America Center on Ellis Island which opened in 2015. Shortly after the opening, we were contacted again and asked to become involved in the Statue of Liberty Museum. As with most things, it is the relationships you build over time that bring you the most success. My relationship with SOLEIF and their confidence in my firm has been instrumental to my firm’s success.
Since you started your career, what’s the biggest change you have seen in the world of building and construction?
DP: I have seen many changes in the construction and building industry, from the use of new technology to the increased emphasis on safety. There is one thing that has not changed. The most important thing on any construction project is a positive relationship between all the team members. That team approach was very much in play for the Statue of Liberty Museum, especially between our firm and ESI Design.
What advice would you give to your younger self starting a career in construction?
DP: There is no mystery in what it takes to be successful in our business. It’s called hard work. My mother always used to tell me that I will run into people who are smarter than me and I will run into people who know more than I do, but I should never run into anyone who works harder than I do. My advice is simple, work hard and you will be successful.
About Phelps Construction Group
Phelps Construction Group, headquartered in Boonton, NJ, provides pre-construction, design-build, and construction management services. The firm has completed a wide range of major commercial, industrial, and institutional projects since its founding in 2007; including The Grammy Museum Experience™ at the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ. More recently, the firm completed Hanover Crossroads, a retail plaza in Hanover, NJ containing TJ Maxx/Homegoods, Ulta, and Five Below.
To read the rest of the interview series, click here. If you have any questions for Douglas, sound off in the comments!