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Byron Levon Nishkian
San Francisco was a city rebuilding from the war time economy, at the time Byron L. Nishkian, Assoc. M. ASCE, inherited sole ownership of the firm from his father in 1947 and continued the practice under the firm name of L.H. and B.L. Nishkian at 1005 Sansome Street, San FranciscoByron Nishkian graduated from Poly Tech High School in 1934 and was always interested in engineering. When asked how his father, a Turkish Armenian immigrant, became interested in engineering, he has no answer. No can he explain why or even when engineering began to interest him. “I guess it was inbred in me,” Nishkian says. “Armenians have always been designing and constructing structures, for years. Long before I went to school I spent my vacations working on my father’s buildings. I’ve done every job you can think of in construction.” Between his freshman and sophomore years, at the College of Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, he worked as a Cable Spinner on the San Francisco Bay Bridge. In the summer of 1939 he worked as a Sanitation Engineer in Migrant relief camps for the State of California.
Myron Tatarian, a classmate and long-time friend, recalls Byron as an adventurous and yet reserved young man. The later trait coming from his father. Byron was not afraid to build a tree house on the grounds of the California Golf Club, while his father played golf, nor hindered, by the lack of a license, from driving off into the wilderness in father’s auto until stuck, and then figuring out how to get out of the problem. Fortunately for his parents, this adventuresome lad was an only child. Byron played hockey and soccer four years at the University of California and was runner-up for the 1937 state figure skating championships. This despite the braces and leg problems he had as a child. An early indication of Byron’s tenacity.
Upon graduation, with a B.S. in Civil Engineering, in 1940 he worked for some time at his fathers firm at 155 Sansome Street, designing and drafting for structural steel. In 1940-41 Mr. Nishkian worked for John J, Gould and the American Society of Civil Engineers on the Timber Test Program on Treasure Island. He was the Assistant Technical Director of tests on timber joints, trusses, etc. Considerable experience was gained negotiating with contractors for desired specimens which were taken from the Treasure island exhibit buildings. Byron returned to his father firm in 1941 and designed and drafted multi-story buildings, reinforced concrete arches, Crane Girders, steel dams and additional concrete, steel and timber structures. He was also involved in concrete and general inspections and by so doing rounded out his theoretical training with an actual knowledge of engineering problems.
Byron requested appointment in the U.S. Naval Reserve as an Ensign, CEC-V(S) in July, 1942. His references for his commission came from prominent members of the community, engineers and judges. Judge Clarence Morris writes “with respect to [his] loyalty, integrity, and morals, I can give unqualified recommendation for excellence.” . . . . “that his integrity is unquestionable and that his morals are above reproach.” Judge Morris concludes his recommendations to Capt. Carlson: “In his work, he [Byron] has always shown a good spirit of cooperation, is properly modest as to his opinions, and not unduly assertive.” H. L. Marchand, his direct supervisor at Nishkian Engineering ,writes, “I have found him industrious, capable and willing, and can vouch for his character and integrity.”
By the Spring of 1943 Nishkian was an Ensign in the 37th Construction Battalion and stationed in Neoumea, New Caladonia with the Pacific Fleet. By early summer he had already received special commendation from The Commanding Officer and the Commander of the U.S. Naval Forces, South Pacific, for his “Splendid Cooperation of 37th Construction Battalion in Handling the Cargo of the U.S.S. Barnes. The endorsement notes; “I feel that Ensign B.L. Nishkian accomplished the impossible by unloading this ship [U.S.S. Barnes] in actually less time than it took to load. He has remained on the job every minute of the time since we have been here, and is deserving of commendation for having accomplished this task most efficiently and expeditiously.” When on considers the difference in conditions between loading at modern docks on the Wets Coast and unloading on a jungle beach in a war zone — this is quite an accomplishment. Nishkian went on to the island of Bougainville, at Puruata, and oversaw the building of an airfield from the jungle and swamp at Torokina. The leadership skills and innovative engineering solutions required in the theater of the South Pacific added a background of experience which served Byron Nishkian well in the ensuing years in the industry.
Byron returned to his father’s firm, now at the Nishkian Building, 812 Howard Street, and inherited sole ownership of the firm upon his father’s passing in 1947. One of Nishkian’s early professional problems was living up to the image of his father. He had worked as his father’s partner until his death and the prospect of taking over had Nishkian scared, he admits. “Some regular clients were a bit worried too,” says William T. Taylor, his chief engineer with the firm for 36 years.
Taylor saw Nishkian through the transition period — somewhat gruffly at times. Taylor remembers, “Byron once asked me, “Will I ever be as good an engineer as my father was”" Taylor said, “No. Neither will anyone else, so don’t worry about it.”
Despite office lore about his growing pains, Byron Nishkian has actually surpassed his father in a business sense, according to William Sargeant, a licensed California architect who assists supervision of the staff. In 22 years [as of 1969], B.L. Nishkian has handled roughly 400 more jobs than his father’s firm did in 28 years, Sargeant says. As of 1974, according to George Stratton, “Byron has, in 27 years, handled 2400 more jobs than his father did in 28 years.!”
Nishkian earned the professional respect of his own staff members, who watched him grow. “Nishkian has a terrific sense of construction,” said his chief engineer William B. Taylor. “If a structure’s difficult to build, something must be wrong. So we bring it to Byron and he solves the problem.” To some engineers, Nishkian’s diverse interests represent his real value to the profession. Failure to be active outside their profession has given engineers the reputation that they are not involved in society, says William W. Moore, senior consulting partner in Dames and Moore, San Francisco soil engineers. When the entrances to the Broadway Tunnel approaches threatened to collapse in the construction phase in the 1950s, due to a combination of the weather (an unseasonable heat wave) and the competitor’s poor design, Byron was called from his vacation home in the Yosemite area on an emergency request. He promptly devised a way to avoid a disastrous outcome and protect the site until proper repairs could be made.
Byron Nishkian’s San Francisco projects include the $4.5 million Bank of Hong Kong and Shanghai building (an 18-story steel frame clad with precast concrete panels), the $14-million Bank of America Service Center and the preliminary workups for the Bank of America high-rise tower. Included in the early years was a $3-million Marine World and aquarium, the Van Waters and Rogers Tank farm and the Clay and Jones Apartment Building. Under construction in 1970 were the $13-million, 43-story Hilton Hotel and a $1-million city health center, over a tunnel approach. The office also was designing the steel frame to the city’s $25-million Tishman-Cahill office building. Other notable projects (how does one decide which of the over 2500 projects are notable”) include the Terman Engineering Center at Stanford University, the Foremost McKesson Building, a 1.25 million square foot/35 story office complex at 525 Market Street, the Earth Science Building at U.C. Berkeley, and the State Compensation Insurance Fund Building at 8th and Market.
In 1970 Bob Hamill was added to firm and name became Nishkian-Hamil Engineers. The 15-man Nishkian firm spent about 10% of its structural engineering time and talent designing ski facilities and resorts. The rest of the time the firm designed about $100 Million worth of Conventional structures annually.
Byron’s interest in the outdoors reaches far into his past when, as a child, he was easily susceptible to poison oak and was prohibited from attending Boy Scotts summer camp. To compensate, he was sent to winter camp. Nishkian, came by his special interest in skiing facilities naturally. He developed strong downhill skiing skills at a time when only a handful of skiers, and virtually no organized facilities, existed in the U.S. A skier for 40 years Nishkian served as a technical delegate or judge of ski-run layouts and rules in many international races. He was former three time president of both the U.S. and Far West Ski Associations and served as a winter Olympics official in Squaw Valley (1966) and Lake Placid (1980). He was elected to the USA Ski Hall of Fame in 1976. The younger Nishkian’s pet project was the 6,000 acre. $5 million Alpine Meadows Ski Area, near Lake Tahoe, in California, that he designed and partly owned. He also designed ski lifts at Yosemite and Lassen National Parks, and consulted on lift designs for Squaw Valley, Mammoth Mountain, Mount Reba, Boreal Ridge and Sugar Bowl, all California ski areas. Related clients also included government agencies, ski associations and manufacturers, from Palm Springs, Calif., to Spokane, Wash., and from Switzerland to Japan.
In 1974 Levon Nishkian, having graduated as an Engineer from the University of Arizona, joined the firm. Levon first project for the firm was the Schlagg Lock office building. Project in the early 70s included the San Francisco Airport Garage Expansion and H&I Connector (AA Airlines), the Sugar Bowl Ski Area parking garage and 425 California Street, and Pacific Insurance in SF (40 stories). In 1976 Bob Hamil left; the firm name again becoming B.L. Nishkian Consulting Engineers, Inc. In 1978 Byron merged Nishkian Engineering with Jack Martin and Jim Cagley, to became Martin, Cagley, Nishkian.
In 1980 they moved to 111 Townsend and in 1981 Byron, who had been running the San Francisco office, retired and turned the reigns over to Levon. But Byron still spent three days a week in his office and serves as a consultant for the firm. He devoted the rest of his time to the State Parks and Recreation Committee, to which he was appointed by Governor Duekmejian in 1985, on the restoration and repair of Yosemite National Park. He also founded,, in 1984, and served as Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Yosemite Fund. Byron’s profession and commitment to the University of California, Berkeley, led him and his wife, Elvira, to endow the first chair at Berkeley’s engineering school, in 1982. He was also a member of the Associates of the University of California Press, a collector of rare books, a fine classical pianist, and a truly modern renaissance man. Byron passed away at his beloved San Francisco home in 1987 and so turned over fully the reins of the Nishkian Engineering legacy to his son Levon.
Byron’s favorite building is not one of his own, or even in the Bay Area. “The Alhambra in Grenada is my favorite,” says Nishkian. “It was the palace of the Moorish ruler of Spain. It’s a huge rambling, artistic place loaded with intricate lace work, fountains, . . . such opulence, and such fine workmanship that has lasted over the centuries.”