Leon and Byron Nishkian: A century of building
One would be hard-pressed to walk through the streets of San Francisco or to race down a ski run at a Tahoe resort without having benefited from the work of Nishkian engineers, a powerhouse family in the world of structural engineering.
Both Leon Nishkian and his son, Byron Levon Nishkian, received their bachelor’s degrees in civil engineering at UC Berkeley. The elder Nishkian, a Turkish Armenian immigrant, graduated in 1906, only weeks after a magnitude 7.9 earthquake ruptured along the San Andreas Fault. The earthquake left 3,000 people dead, San Francisco in ruins and a massive amount of rebuilding to do.
Among the numerous projects Leon worked on in the city were the old Orpheum Theatre, the Castro Theatre and the Palace Hotel. During World War II, he served as an engineer for many large projects undertaken by the U.S. Army, U.S. Navy and the Maritime Commission. Nishkian was part of the statewide committee that drew up the state’s building codes, and he also served on the committee of engineers rehabilitating San Francisco schools for earthquake stability in 1933.
By the time Byron Nishkian graduated from Berkeley in 1940, his father had established a reputation as an inventive thinker to whom people would when traditional solutions failed. One of the senior Nishkian’s most notable achievements was the development of a unique flotation system to “right” the USS Arizona battleship sunk in Pearl Harbor in 1941, allowing the Navy to retrieve the remains of the sailors on the ship.
When Leon Nishkian died in 1947, his son took over the company he had founded in 1919. By then, Nishkian & Associates had become one of the largest structural engineering firms in the United States. Byron Nishkian presided over projects such as several Bank of America buildings, the Terman Engineering Center at Stanford University and McCone Hall at UC Berkeley.
While the younger Nishkian’s path as an engineer was influenced by his father, his love of sports was arguably a major contributor to his legacy. An accomplished athlete, Byron Nishkian played hockey and soccer at UC Berkeley, and he was runner-up for the 1937 state figure skating championships.
He was an enthusiastic advocate for the Tahoe area as a major destination for skiers, helping organize the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley and founding the Alpine Meadows ski resort. In addition to designing ski lifts at Yosemite and Lassen National Parks, he consulted on the lift designs for numerous California ski areas, including Mammoth Mountain, Boreal Ridge and Sugar Bowl. His contributions earned him a place in the USA Ski Hall of Fame in 1976.
Byron Nishkian kept close ties to his alma mater, serving as a trustee of the UC Berkeley Foundation and one of the first to respond to then-Chancellor Ira Michael Heyman’s call in 1980 to fund 100 new faculty chairs through major gifts. Nishkian and his wife, Elvira Nishkian, funded the Byron and Elvira Nishkian Chair in Structural Engineering in 1982.
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