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Leon Hagop Nishkian
San Francisco was a partially ruined city, badly in need of rebuilding, at the time L.H. Nishkian received his degree of B.S. in Civil Engineering from the University of California. He, with others, immediately started on that job and remained at it.
Mr. Nishkian started his engineering work back in 1906 when he went to work for G. Albert Landsburgh, Architect, on the two Gunst buildings, the old Orpheum Theater on O’Farrell Street and several others that showed that the confidence in him, even at his then youth, was not misplaced. Following his graduation, Mr. Nishkian was associated for several years with engineering firms and architects as a structural engineer in the design and construction of steel and concrete buildings. After a short period on railroad location in Oregon, he was again back in San Francisco on the construction of the most familiar of all local landmarks, the Palace Hotel.
In 1909, following a period with the Pacific Rolling Mills as a steel detailer he went to Southern California to join the force of Parkinson and Sergstrom, well know architects of Los Angeles, where he worked on the designs of the Los Angeles Athletic Club, the Los Angeles Title Insurance and the Union Oil Buildings, and as assistant chief engineer for construction of steel-frame buildings.
Two years later, in 1911, Mr. Nishkian was appointed assistant engineer in the office of the city engineer of San Francisco, Calif. After three years he became hydraulic structural engineer for the San Francisco Board of Public Works, devoting his time to the design of buildings, tunnels, dams and other private structures for the city, and also checking the structural design of private buildings. Here he worked on the Geary Street car barns, the Hetch Hetchy project and finally as Consulting Structural Engineer for the City of San Francisco Building Department.
The private firm MacDonald and Kahn finally succeeded in retaining him in 1918 and 1919 to design a number of buildings in the city’s “automobile row,” the California Raisin Growers Association plant in Fresno, and he was engaged in designing and supervising the construction of concrete buildings.
With thirteen years of experience in every phase of engineering behind him, Mr. Nishkian opened offices as a consulting engineer, in San Francisco, on steel and concrete buildings and on other types on construction requiring the services of a skilled engineer. He and his staff completed over 1,800 jobs in the West, from bascule bridges to a proposal for an off-shore airport in San Francisco Bay. Along the way, Nishkian senior won a reputation for brilliance. One widely used innovation of his helped his reputation. He and D. Steinman, designer of the Mackinac Bridge, in Michigan, developed the method of conjugate points, which allowed graphic solution of continuous beam problems. He was also consultant for the San Francisco Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge and designed the Golden Gate Bridge Toll Booths.
Many notable structures of the Pacific coast are the result of his work as a consulting engineer. They include the Lake Eleanor Dam in the High Sierras, a unit in San Francisco’s municipal Hetch Hetchy water supply system, The Levon Hagop Nishkian bascule bridge on Third Street over Isalis Creek, San Francisco Bridge, and the Williams-Nishkian Bridge in Pasadena. He was for many years structural engineer for the Bank of America completing the head office of the Bank of America at Pine and Montgomery Streets and supervising the engineering and construction of buildings erected for bank occupancy throughout California.
During World War II he was designated engineer for many large projects undertaken in the west by the United States Army, the Navy, and the Maritime Commission, including the Toole Ammunition Depot in Utah and the Joshua Hendry Iron Works at Sunnyvale, Calif. Of particular note was his role in the “righting” of the Arizona, sunk in the attack on Pearl Harbor. After repeated attempts at a solution the Navy finally brought in Mr. Nishkian who devised a unique flotation system to allow the remains of sailors to finally be retrieved from the wreck.
He was also retained by Henry Kaiser to design Richmond (Calif.) Shipyard No. 3. Several engineering reports were made for Mr. Kaiser during the later parts of the war, including one on the feasibility of electrifying railroad lines across the Sierras. Of his engineering work that is not strictly steel designing, perhaps the best known projects are those for Henry J. Kaiser for whom he designed and did much of the work at The Permanente Plant, Permanente, Calif. and others at Radum, California, to be followed by engineering work for several of Mr. Kaiser’s associated companies. Since the beginning of the defense program the number of buildings he has engineered for the Joshua Hendy Iron Works at Sunnyvale, California, is such that the plant must be seen in order to realize its great extent, and the same might be said of the Kaiser Yards at Richmond.
Among the many landmarks that are familiar to most people which were engineered by Nishkian are the Loews Warfield Theater at Market and Taylor Streets, San Francisco’s most pretentious theater; the Fox Theater Building; the Bellaire Apartment atop Russian Hill; the Insurance Center Building at Pine and Sansome Streets, much of the San Francisco waterfront, and the Furniture Exchange at Market and Tenth. He also engineered the Castro Theater in San Francisco and the Paramount in Oakland.
Not that his work has been restricted to the confines of San Francisco; far from it, for his field has expanded to embrace all of California and frequently has extended into neighboring states and territories and even into Federal work and foreign countries, as a consulting engineer. It was not at all uncommon to hear, “If you’ve got a tough steel framing job, better get Nish,” and it is not at all surprising to learn that the tough problems of even Federal and foreign work, eventually found their way into his offices before their solutions were found.
The forty years since Mr. Nishkian left college no way inhibited his habit of keeping abreast, and usually several years ahead, of modern practice in Civil Engineering. Many of the ideas that were called Nishkian radicals are in common practice today. The “tough ones,” the problems that stump most engineers, sooner or later found their way to Nishkian’s office to come out solved. Some years ago, the American Society of Civil Engineers published a bulletin on “Moments in Restrained and Continuous Beams by the Method of Conjugate Parts,” by L.H. Nishkian and D.B. Steinman, which bulletin has been of great use to the designers of continuous structures.
Nishkian was one of the most well known structural engineers of his time, and a list of those who worked with and learned from him, reads like a who’s who of San Francisco engineers. Mr. Nishkian was Engineering Certificate #24 in the State of California. Among his associates in the engineering profession and the fellow members of the committees on which he served, Mr. Nishkian was noted for his keen analytical mind and his determination to ascertain basic facts.
Throughout his career Mr. Nishkian gave freely of his time and services toward the advancement of the engineering profession, and to organizations engaged in civic and public welfare work. He had many friends in and out of the profession and lived an exemplary life, making the golden rule his gospel in everyday dealings.
For ten years Mr. Nishkian represented the Northern California Section of the Society [of Civil Engineers] on the state-wade committee which drew up the “Building Code for California.” He was active in committee work for both the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce and the California Chamber of Commerce, and he also served on the committee of engineers rehabilitating San Francisco schools for earthquake stability in 1933. He was past president of the Consulting Engineers Association of California, and at his death was serving as vice-president of the San Francisco Section of the Society. Mr. Nishkian was also one of the founders of, and served as, the ASCE Retirement Trust Chairman. He was also a member of the Flat Slab Committee of the American Concrete Institute.
In 1942, he was appointed consulting engineer for the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District, remaining in that capacity until his death. The people of San Francisco will always remember Leon N. Nishkian as one who gave unstintingly of his time and effort in his endeavor to make San Francisco, the City he so dearly loved, the principal city in these United States. The Board of Supervisors, noting with keen regret the passing of Leon N. Nishkian, passed Resolution 6596 in memoriam and “adjourned this day [Monday, June 2, 1947] out of respect for the memory of the late Leon N. Nishkian.”