The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 2002, Volume 48, Number 1
Gregg Hennessey, Editor

by Thomas G. Atkinson

Images from this article

The role of professional engineers in the building design process has changed greatly during the past 150 years. Advancement in science and technology has brought about the use of materials, processes and design techniques unknown in 1852. Specialization has occurred as a matter of necessity to take full advantage of the many improvements in building technology. Civil Engineers, identified as such, now will be found in several capacities on building projects, whereas in the past their functions generally would have been carried out by Architects or building contractors.

This essay describes three well known major buildings constructed in San Diego during the last 150 years. These are the Hotel del Coronado (1888), the San Diego County Administration Center (1938) and the San Diego Convention Center (2001). These buildings are described mostly from the perspective of a civil engineer who has specialized in structural engineering, but who recognizes the valuable contributions of all civil engineers involved in the construction of buildings.

The table provided at the end of this article “Developments in Building Engineering and Construction 1852 – 2002,” shows approximate dates of various developments affecting the construction process in the last 150 years. While not a comprehensive list, the items shown do serve to illustrate the many advancements in building engineering and construction between the building of the Hotel del Coronado, the San Diego County Administration Building, and the San Diego Convention Center. Very few of the developments would have been available to designers and builders of the Hotel del Coronado. Over half of the developments listed were not available to the engineers and builders of the County Administration Building in the mid 1930’s. Engineering for buildings has become more complex, more specialized and more reliable in the last 50 years, but not necessarily any less demanding. Engineers still must use the utmost care in performing their professional services regardless of the many devices that become available to save their time and provide more economical designs.

On most significant building projects, Civil Engineers will be found in many capacities. Structural Engineers responsibilities include designing the building framework, walls, roofs, floors and foundations with particular attention to earthquake resistance. Geotechnical Engineers are responsible for examining and testing the soils and making recommendations for site grading and the building foundations. Civil Engineers survey and lay out the property and design the site development for the building, which includes streets, parking lots, utilities and storm drainage. Testing and Inspection Firms who typically are supervised by Civil Engineers provide for quality control of the building components. Construction Engineers supervise the construction process and frequently are educated as Civil Engineers. Maintenance Supervisors, often educated as Civil Engineers, operate and maintain the building when it is in use. And finally, Building Officials check the plans, specifications and calculations for compliance of the structural design and site improvements with applicable governmental codes and regulations.

Other types of professional engineers are also employed on most modern buildings. These are Mechanical Engineers, who are responsible for design of heating, ventilating, air conditioning and plumbing systems and Electrical Engineers who design the power, lighting, communication, and fire alarm systems.


The Hotel del Coronado is internationally recognized as one of the world’s most beautiful and famous resorts and convention facilities. The hotel came into being as the result of several conditions and events peculiar to the period in which it was built. In the 1880s, San Diego experienced an economic boom. This was brought about, in part, by the recently completed cross-country railroads, two of which served San Diego at the time. Visitor’s and fortune seekers traveled to San Diego by the thousands. San Diego’s population increased by 41,000 between 1885 and 1888.1 Land speculation was a primary lure for new arrivals. Hotel rooms were in great demand and could not serve the incoming travelers adequately. Before and during this period, luxury hotels had been constructed by the railroads in the eastern United States to serve wealthy and fashionable visitors who had the time and means for recreational travel.2 These hotels had similar architectural features and amenities and these would be used in the Hotel del Coronado. The design of a luxury hotel with such features fell to James W. Reid, Architect, who had a successful practice, along with his brothers Merritt and Watson in Evansville, Indiana.

The Reid brothers were born and raised in Canada. James W. Reid was born in 1852 in New Brunswick. He moved to Boston at age 20 to attend the Lowell School of Practical Design. He studied industrial arts in association with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but did not graduate from any university. Merritt J. Reid was born in 1855 and followed brother James to Boston. Information about his education has not been found, but the record shows that both he and James were employed as draftsmen. Watson Reid was born in 1857 and had two years of college education at Mount Allison University — a Canadian Institution of higher education. In 1886, James, Merritt and Watson Reid, through their Architectural practice in Evansville, Indiana, were known to Mr. Elijah S. Babcock, an officer of the Mackey System of Railroads. It was Mr. Babcock who retired to San Diego and retained the Reid brothers to design and supervise construction of the Hotel del Coronado, starting in December 1886. Watson Reid joined James in San Diego while Merritt carried on the Evansville practice. Shortly following the completion of the hotel, the brothers established an architectural practice in San Francisco, retaining a branch office in downtown San Diego for a few years. James Reid, along with his brother Merritt, developed one of the most prominent architectural firms in the United States, designing numerous major projects in California and the northwest. Merritt died in 1932, and James retired shortly thereafter. He died on September 23, 1945.

Initial owners and builders of the hotel were Elijah S. Babcock, Jr., from Evansville, Indiana, and Mr. Hampton L. Story of Chicago, Illinois, both of whom came west to live in a more healthy environment. In 1885, these two businessmen, along with a handful of additional investors, formed the Coronado Beach Company. They acquired the entire 4,100 acre peninsula of Coronado on which they intended to build a world-class resort and resort community. They hired Reid Brothers, Architects of Evansville, Indiana, to design the building and supervise construction. James came west to work on the hotel, starting work on the plans in December, 1886. Construction began in March 1887 and proceeded rapidly, such that the building was able to receive its first guests in January 1888, though the “official” opening date is usually reported as February 19, 1888. If the Hotel del Coronado was being built in the present day, it would be known as a “Fast Track” construction project. It is amazing that this large, complex and beautiful building was constructed in the short period of eleven months. Nearly all of the materials, except brick, had to be brought to the site from great distances, some of which came around the horn from the East Coast.

Architect James W. Reid, in his short publication “The Building of Hotel del Coronado,” gives valuable insights about the project.3 Within a few days of his arrival in San Diego, he was required to begin purchasing the lumber for the project:

Preliminary sketches were quickly prepared and because of the lack of time remained the unchanged basis of construction. From the sketch, a lumber bill was taken off. With many misgivings as to adequacy and accuracy, the lumber bill was taken to San Francisco by the writer, who was accompanied by Mr. Heber Ingle, a retired lumber man. There we were met by Mr. Herman Schussler, who was also interested in the project, and were taken to the Occidental Hotel, a hostelry and host not soon to be forgotten. Next day a contract was made with Messrs. Dolbeer & Carson, who agreed, and well kept their promise, to give the order the right-of-way in cutting and shipping.4

Soon after our return to Coronado, work was started on a brick kiln, planing mill and small iron works. It was decided that the most speed in construction would be obtained if the delay of preparing drawings for contracting was avoided. It was not difficult to obtain good, unskilled labor, of the only kind there was, by applying to the Chinese Seven Companies in San Francisco. As many as could work were employed at once.5

Realizing the difficulty of obtaining skilled workmen, where everyone was rich, or would be tomorrow, the foundations were started along the north front, as simpler in construction, progressing southward. The men’s workmanship would gradually improve and in the meantime perhaps more and better help would be found. This proved true to some extent, but progress was constantly hampered for want of competent men and leaders, both in the drafting room and in the field.6

Many problems had to be met. Incandescent lighting, for example, was new at that time and, with the exception of one in progress in New York, the Coronado installation was the largest that had been attempted. … However, the work went steadily and rapidly on in spite of drawbacks, and was greatly accelerated toward the later middle period by the assistance of the writer’s brother, Watson, and Mr. Ingersoll, a young mining engineer. Their help relieved the pressure to a considerable extent.7

The greatest credit for the progress, and for whatever merit there is, goes to the unfailing confidence of Messrs. Babcock and Story. Thus it was that the Coronado Hotel was completed and opened to guests on the 19th of February, 1888, about eleven months after commencement.8

What today we would call “Fast Track Construction” was employed in the 1880’s for many of the same reasons that it is often used today. The precept that “Time is Money” rules the process. Rapid completion not only speeds the influx of cash as the enterprise begins to serve paying customers, but ongoing payments of principal and interest for borrowed capital are reduced or paid completely. Of course, the outgoing flow of cash to pay for materials and labor also cease. Those involved in present day fast track projects will relate sympathetically to James Reid’s stated feelings of “many misgivings.” Absent from the record are mention of litigation between Owner, Architect, Builders and other participants which now frequently ensues following completion of fast track contracts. As stated by Reid, the owners had unfailing confidence in their Architect/Engineer, and the decision to forego the letting of contracts in order to save the time for making complete plans greatly reduced the potential for disagreements and consequent litigation. James Reid further states that at the completion of the hotel, “the boom had collapsed and the “undertakings had been over-extended.”9 In 1890 John D. and Adolph B. Spreckles acquired the hotel and Elijah Babcock became its manager.

The construction of the hotel involved much more than the building itself. For purposes of the construction a brick kiln,10 a planing mill, metal shop and iron works were constructed, as well as a barracks to house several hundred workers. Permanent auxiliary buildings (which still survive) include a laundry, “Engine house” for steam boiler and electrical generating system, a boat house (now a restaurant), an ice house, and a 100 ft. tall brick masonry and steel smoke stack. A large tunnel was built for utilities and access of employees between the Laundry/Engine house and the hotel. A water supply line was layed on the floor of San Diego Bay between the hotel and water sources which served the City of San Diego. Steam railroads were built on the silver strand and street cars operated from the hotel to the ferry landing across the bay from San Diego.

Newspaper reports mentioned statistics which show something of the scope of the project, including “2,308 lineal feet of concrete foundation wall,” “6,000 barrels of cement have been used,” “the number of shingles for roofs and sides is about 2,000,000,” “three thousand window frames and doors have been turned out by the Coronado Planing Mill for the Hotel.”

Wood, being the principle construction material, was needed in huge quantities. Furthermore, walls and roofs required unusually long members. Much of the timber was transported by chaining the logs together into large rafts and floating them by sea from the northern California forests to Coronado. The building was recognized to be vulnerable to destruction by fire, leading to the use of electric lighting from its beginning. It was one of the first hotels in the country to be so lighted.

Many prominent people have been hotel guests through the years. President Benjamin Harrison, the first of several presidential guests, visited in 1891. The building was purchased in 1890 by John D. Spreckles, the sugar millionaire. Steam heat was installed in 1897. Automatic gravity fire sprinklers followed in 1916. The hotel is on the National Register of Historic Sites and was officially named a California Historical Site in 1964. It is now owned by Lowe Enterprises of Los Angeles. The building recently has undergone extensive restoration. It has been upgraded structurally for service loads and resistance to seismic forces. This work was successfully accomplished in spite of several difficult restraints. Among these was the requirement not to destroy existing features and finishes which have historical significance, and to do all work with the hotel continuing in service.13

The hotel occupies a 31 acre site which is strategically located at the junction of the Silver Strand and the City of Coronado. The basic plan for the hotel as initially stated by architect James Reid still provides an accurate picture of the building as it exists today.

It would be built around a court — a garden of tropical trees, shrubs and flowers with pleasant paths — balconies should look down on the open court from every story. From the south end, the foyer would open to Glorietta Bay with verandas for rest and promenade. On the ocean corner there would be a pavilion tower and northward along the ocean, a colonnade terraced in grass to the beach. The dining wing would project at an angle from the southeast corner of the court and be almost detached to give full value to the view of the ocean, bay and city.11

The central open court is nearly one acre in size and is surrounded on the north, south and west sides by the main guest room structure which is typically five stories in height and on the east side of the building by the main entryway, lobby, verandas and additional guest rooms. The building originally had 399 guest rooms. Only 13 had private baths. The entire building is of wood frame construction. The most spectacular aspects of the building consist of the dining rooms at one corner and the ballroom at the opposite corner. The main dining room which is known today as the “Crown Room” is 156 feet long, 62 feet wide and 33 feet high, built “without pillar or post.” It is ellipsoidal in plan and has self-supported vaulted ceilings. The room seats 700 with the adjacent Coronet Room capable of handling 200 additional diners. The ballroom is notable in its exterior aspect for the conical shaped roof with pergola and flagpole at its peak. Both the Ballroom and Crown Room are free-spanning structures of major proportions considering the use of wood framing and the technology available for such an achievement at the time of original construction.

The era which included the construction of the Hotel del Coronado was one in which engineers for buildings were not usually designated as such, their work being done either by the architects for the building or by building construction contractors who furnished the engineering design as part of the construction contracting arrangement. The Reid brothers always appear to have gone by their rightful title of “Architect,” but were often recognized in print for their skills and accomplishments as “Engineers.” It seems probable that James Reid, the oldest brother, had a good education in engineering theory and design, having been educated at the Lowell School of Practical Design with further training at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The railroad experience of the Reids in the design of long span timber trusses for train shed roofs positioned them for handling the engineering challenges on the Crown Room and Ball Room — especially since they were forced to use “green lumber” with which they obviously had past experience.

James Reid recalled that, “Trusses carrying heavy loads were to be constructed of green lumber, and fear of shrinkage, causing settlement, was always present: time has proved that the means taken to overcome this danger were effective.”11 Reid also addressed the potential ill effects of using “green” lumber (freshly milled lumber having high water content which will shrink in cross sectional dimension as it dries out in service) for the multi-story hotel wings. He chose to use “balloon” framing, utilizing vertical wall framing members which extend in one piece (without joints) for two or more stories as opposed to the more common and usually more economical “platform framing” in which each story is completely built above the one below. Platform framing requires attention to the change in vertical dimensions of the walls due to shrinkage of the floor framing members which extend through and support the wall framing at each level.

The Hotel del Coronado is known the world over as a masterpiece of Victorian architecture. It is also recognized as a building of engineering significance, being a complex major structure made entirely of wood framing which has withstood the test of time for 114 years of continuous service. It is also an engineering achievement by virtue of its construction in the short period of less than one year by several hundred workers, both skilled and unskilled, assembling materials, most of which came from long distances, including transit “around the horn” from the Eastern Seaboard.


This building, sometimes referred to as San Diego’s “Jewel on the Bay,” was originally jointly owned and used by the City and County of San Diego and was known as the San Diego Civic Center. Interest in building a Civic Center dates from the first decade of the 20th century when the need for a centralized City-County Center became apparent to replace the several government buildings scattered about the downtown area. John Nolen, a city planner, was engaged to study and prepare a plan for consideration of the City of San Diego. The first draft was published in 1908, showing the Civic Center in the center of downtown San Diego. This was rejected by the voters. During that era, engineering plans failed adoption as well — mainly due to the distractions of the 1915 Panama California Exposition and World War I.

Nolen produced a plan in 1926 showing the Civic Center on newly developed dredged fill ground on tidelands adjacent to San Diego Bay. This plan was adopted in an election held on March 22, 1927. However, there was wide spread opposition to the tidelands site. This, along with the effects of the 1930s Great Depression upon the economy, delayed proceeding with the project until 1935. At that time, Federal Works Progress Administration relief funds under the National Recovery Act of 1933 became available. Except for the foundation of the building, construction of the building was to be done by contract. It was built in the 1930’s with a federal grant of one million dollars from the depression area Works Progress Administration supplemented with 750 thousand dollars of local funds. A consortium of four prominent architects was appointed in 1935 to design the building. These were Samuel W. Hamill, William Templeton Johnson, Richard S. Requa and Louis J. Gill. Construction began in 1936. The finished building was dedicated on July 16, 1938 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who addressed an estimated crowd of 25,000.14

In the subsequent 25 years both the City and the County governments outgrew the building. The City of San Diego moved the City administrative functions to a new Civic Center in 1964, selling its share of the building to the County. The county has moved several of its administration functions to other sites. At present, the building houses the hearing room and offices of the Board of Supervisors, the office of the County Treasurer-Tax Collector, the County Assessor and other major departments.

The Spanish Revival style building has 544 feet of frontage and a total floor area of more than 200,000 square feet. The main building has five stories above two basement stories. A central tower extends for five stories above the main roof. This was one of the first buildings to use steel piles to resist lateral seismic forces. It is constructed entirely of reinforced concrete except for the sloping mission tile roofs which are supported on wood framing.

The design for the Building originally featured a central tower 225 ft. in elevation above the ground. Regrettably, it was reduced in height to 150 feet to save cost. This decision also was influenced by threat of a suit against the City by Rueben H. Fleet, Manager of Consolidated Aircraft Corporation (later known as CONVAIR). He alleged that the tower would interfere with aircraft landings at Lindbergh Field. Other buildings on the site also were contemplated. Included were a service building, hall of justice, civic auditorium and health services building. Conflicting opinions on this between the City and County prevailed against these added structures. However, the County Health Building was built at the northwest corner of the site in the 1950’s.

The publication “Jewel on the Bay” gives interesting information about certain aspects of the building design — especially as to the foundation:

The tidelands site, like that of Lindbergh Field, consisted of leftover fill from dredging projects. There had been considerable concern that the site was incapable of supporting a large, heavy structure, in part because the site had been submerged prior to 1914. This, in addition to the earthquake concern, demanded that construction begin in a scrupulous fashion. The Long Beach earthquake of 1933 influenced engineering design; the devastating quake had called into question existing building techniques, meaning that any major new project required a new approach. [Architect Samuel] Hamill commented in retrospect that:

“Local architects didn’t believe [the Civic Center] would ever exist. One reason they didn’t take it too seriously was the Long Beach earthquake. That put a death sentence on a lot of buildings.”16

Public sensitivity to earthquake safety in the years immediately following the Long Beach Earthquake imposed a demand upon the design team to seriously and effectively address the earthquake threat. San Diego had been relatively free of this problem in comparison with the other major populated areas to the north and did not require earthquake resistant design in its building code until 1939.

The architectural team chose Mr. J. H. Davies, structural engineer from Long Beach, to provide the structural design for the new Civic Center building. Mr. Davies, no doubt, had seen the effects of seismic loads on many buildings in his home town in 1933 and could demonstrate experience in designing to reduce or prevent this type of destruction. He had provided structural engineering very recently for new buildings in Balboa Park which were built for the Worlds Fair of 1935 and 1936.

The design of the foundation was a particular challenge to Mr. Davies. The soils on the building site consisted of soft materials dredged from the bottom of San Diego Bay and deposited on top of similar materials to bring the finished ground elevation to a few feet above high tide.

The demand for safety overrode economic concerns in virtually every element of construction. Engineers planned for steel pilings, rather than wood pilings, to prevent shearing in the event of an earthquake. Structural engineer J. H. Davies [specified] more than 1,500 H-shaped steel pilings (varying in length from 32 feet to 35 feet) that were driven deep into the ground to support the weight of the building. Load tests were undertaken to determine the security of the foundation; the first piles that were driven in revealed that foundation conditions were better than had been expected. Opponents of the tidelands site had claimed that the pilings would have to be driven to tremendous depths in order to secure a firm base; this would have been a costly and impractical method of constructing the building. But firm sandstone was encountered under the dredging fill, and the test borings went 40 feet into the sandstone area with no indication of finding the bottom.17

The steel piles were placed in an alternating pattern such that they would be effective in resisting horizontal earthquake forces, regardless of the direction of the ground shaking.18 The building was subdivided into five sections, separated by joints which permitted free movement of each section under ground shaking. The foundation for the tower was a six foot thick concrete pad placed on hydraulically compacted sand. The reinforced concrete superstructure would have been specifically designed to resist horizontal earthquake forces. The entire building design process, which took more than a year, was completed on December 5, 1935. Actual construction began on January 4, 1936.

The grading, preparation of site and foundation and basement for this building were done separately under jurisdiction of the WPA. This work was done mostly by common labor under a WPA force account. Money remaining from the 1 million dollar government WPA fund after completion of the foundation and site preparation were turned over to the City and County for completion of the building. This work was done by a competitively bid contract. The B. O. Larson Company with a bid of 449,900 dollars was required to subcontract with dozens of San Diego businesses for 75 percent of the contract amount. This was a requirement of the WPA in order to spread the work in the community.19

Construction of the Civic Center was carried out with enthusiasm and appreciation by the builders who had suffered through several depression years. Some delay did slow down the progress, however. An unrelated labor dispute prevented unloading of lumber needed for concrete forms from ships docked nearby. This resulted in a lay-off of more than 40 workers and a two-month stand still in construction. Further delay resulted because the plans for the building provided for a jail to be in part of the building, and several mis-informed prominent backers of the project strongly objected to its inclusion. The plans were revised, deleting the jail, which was built shortly thereafter at another site.20

While delays interrupted the rapid and orderly process of construction, the lost time was made up, and the construction was completed 90 days ahead of schedule. This was in no small amount due to the resourcefulness of those in charge of the project and a spirit of enthusiasm in the workers. The San Diego Union wrote about an example of this high morale on January 5, 1936:

“They are doing more than merely working on a job. They are constructing a building in which they are taking pride. This is evidenced by the attendance at the weekly “school” that is maintained on the site. For two hours each Wednesday night, the workmen are invited to attend a class where they are instructed in the phase of work they are doing at that particular stage of the project. Attendance is voluntary, and no pay is available for those who go, but out of the 200 men on the job, the attendance rages from 100 to 156.”

The spirit of pride in those who built the San Diego County Administration Center also became evident in the citizens of San Diego as the building was completed and dedicated. Such pride continues to the present day as the people of San Diego continue to admire the building and make effective use of it. The building was one of the largest built in the San Diego area during the depression years. It was designed to earthquake resisting standards not generally required in the San Diego area at that time. Engineering for the building by J. H. Davies and other Civil Engineers involved was a major achievement and demonstrated a high degree of ingenuity. It is listed on the National Register of Historical Places and continues to be a prominent part of San Diego’s daily life as the seat of its County government.


The San Diego Convention Center is one of the largest and most prestigious buildings in San Diego County. It was constructed in its first phase in the 1980’s and was nearly doubled in size during the period 1998 to 2001. It has been recognized as one of the top three convention centers in the world and the only one in the United States itself. By virtue of its beautiful location adjacent to San Diego Bay and its convenient position in downtown San Diego, it is one of the most desirable convention facilities in the world. Perhaps its most notable use thus far was for the 1996 National Convention of the Republican Party.21

The success of the Center lead to the decision to expand it to double the size of the original structure so that it can accommodate larger conventions and also provide more flexibility in serving those of a lesser magnitude. The expanded Center is expected to have an economic impact of 1 billion dollars annually and generate 16,000 jobs for the San Diego economy.

The expanded Convention Center is a massive structure, 500 feet wide and 2,300 feet long, with a typical height of 160 feet. The height was purposely made as low as feasible in order to reduce the bulk of the building and present a more attractive presence adjacent to downtown San Diego. A large tented roof at the approximate center of the expanded Center, glass and concrete facades cascading down to street level, and a series of descending terraces and amphitheater on the bay side of the building help achieve an unusual and attractive appearance to those who view the building from the exterior.22

The two phases of the structure are similar in area with the exception that the first phase has the tented roof area and 700,000 square feet of basement parking, which will service approximately 2,000 cars. Phase One has a total floor area of 1,716,000 square feet with the two floors of basement parking and a ground floor exhibit hall of 250,000 square feet, plus meeting rooms containing 104,000 square feet at the top level.

The Phase Two expansion has a total floor area of 903,000 square feet, including 277,000 square feet of exhibit halls, 60,000 square feet of meeting rooms and a 41,000 square foot ballroom. At the north end of the expansion where it adjoins the original center a “grand stair” is provided. This is for public access, including provisions for use by handicapped persons, both to and from the bay.

In addition to being an unusually large and complex project, the building is notable for some unique civil engineering problems which had to be addressed.

A. In both phases of the buildings, the steel framework for the top level of exhibit halls, sales pavilion and ballroom require unusually heavy steel truss systems to support the loads on long spans between supporting columns in the exhibit halls below. The requirement to keep the trusses at a shallow depth in order to reduce the height of the building resulted in a system using some of the largest steel sections available to provide the stiffness and strength which were required. Many of the steel members have flanges on the order of three inches in thickness. Connections are all welded, requiring unusual care in the fabrication and field joinery of these heavy members. This was an unusual challenge to the contractors, the inspection firms and the structural engineering teams for the centers. Fabrication of steel assemblies was done by contractors located in Korea. This required representatives of the Structural Engineers and Testing Agencies to spend time in that country overseeing the work to assure use of sound welding procedures and quality control.

B. The basement parking levels in the First Phase, which extend below sea level, require continuous pumping to keep the basement dry. This presented unusual engineering problems to the mechanical team as well as to the civil engineers and geotechnical engineers on the project.

C. In the Second Phase it was found necessary to lower Harbor Drive by nine feet in order to provide an automobile access off of the street to the parking garage. This, in turn, resulted in the extensive relocation of existing utilities under Harbor Drive, as well as the design of the driveways and adjacent protective walls which extended down close to sea level.

D. The 90,000 square foot column free tented “sales pavilion” area was an engineering achievement in itself and required the services of a consulting structural engineering firm from New York City who specialized in this type of structure.

The first phase of the Convention Center was built by a joint venture of the Tudor Saliba and Perini Construction Companies under a competitive bid contract for approximately 160 million dollars. The second phase project was built by the Turner Construction Company of New York City and the Centex Golden Construction Company of San Diego under a Design-Build Contract for 215 million dollars. Architects for the first phase were a consortium of Arthur Erickson Associates and Deems, Lewis, McKinley and Loschky, Marquardt & Nesholm . Architects for the second phase were a consortium of Tucker, Sadler & Associates and HNTB Architecture.

All of the Developments in Building Engineering and Construction 1852-2002 as shown in the Table at the end of this essay were available to the designers and builders of the San Diego Convention Center. Because of its size, as well as its complexity and the limited schedule for design and construction, scores, if not hundreds, of professional engineers were employed in one capacity or another.23 To many of them, the Convention Center Building would have been no more remarkable than the County Administration Building or the Hotel del Coronado, insofar as their engineering contributions to the success of the job are concerned.

The word “engineer” as applied to professional civil engineers is derived from the word “ingenuity.” Civil engineers who work on buildings are frequently required to exercise this trait, since many of their projects are uniquely planned by the Architect as to function and appearance. This is particularly true in monumental buildings of the types described above. Civil and Structural Engineers will tell you that this is what makes their work interesting. They would generally agree that they seldom work through a day which has been boring, although it well might be stressful. Such can certainly be said for the Reid Brothers as they worked on the Hotel del Coronado, as well as J. H. Davies, Structural Engineer for the County Administration Building, and assuredly for John A. Martin, Sr., Edwin H. Johnson and the engineering teams for the San Diego Convention Center.



Structural Engineering Technology: Approximate Initial
Period of Usage
Theory – Reinforced Concrete 1900 – 1910
Theory – Soil Mechanics 1915 – 1925
Foundation Engineering 1930 – 1940
Indeterminate Structures – Solutions 1930 – 1940
Theory – Prestressed Concrete 1940 – 1950
Eccentric Braced Steel Frames 1970 – 1980
Earthquake Resistant Design 1920 – 1930
Wind Resistant Design 1910 – 1920
Thin Shell Concrete Structures 1950 – 1960
High Strength Concrete 1980 – 1990
Light Weight Concrete 1940 – 1950
Practice and Methods: Approximate Initial
Period of Usage
Computer Aided Drafting and Design (CADD) 1980-1990
Telephonic Facsimile (FAX) Transmission 1975-1985
Slide Rule Perfected 1850
Calculator – Hand Crank 1930 – 1940
Calculator – Electric 1935 – 1945
Calculator – Electronic 1970 – 1980
Dry Process Copiers (Xerox) 1950 – 1960
Diazo Drawing Reproduction (replacing blueprints) 1940 – 1950
Computers – Main Frame 1940 – 1950
Computers – PC 1980 – 1990
Computers – Lap Top 1980 – 1990
Construction Materials and Methods: Approximate Initial
Period of Usage
Structural Steel: Structural Steel 1880 – 1900
Welded Connections 1945 – 1955
High Strength Bolted Connections 1950 – 1960
Timber: Plywood Sheathing 1950 – 1960
Glued-Laminated Lumber 1940 – 1950
Manufactured Steel Timber Connectors 1950 – 1960
Foundations: Steam Pile Driving Hammer Invented 1850
Soils Testing for Foundations 1935 – 1945
Concrete: Portland Cement Concrete (in USA) 1872 –
Reinforced Concrete 1900 – 1920
Pre-stressed Concrete 1950 – 1960
Light Weight Concrete 1945 – 1955
Masonry: Concrete Block Masonry 1930 – 1940
Steel Reinforced Masonry 1935 – 1945

Other Developments Since 1852 Which Had Major Impacts Upon Engineering and Construction:

  • The Telephone
  • The Automobile
  • Motorized Construction Vehicles
  • Electric Power and Lighting
  • Electric Power Tools




1. “The Park Brick Company” by Alexander D. Bevil, page 361c. Journal of San Diego History, Vol. 42, Winter 1996, Vol. 1,

2. Denise Draper Craft, “Hotel del Coronado (1888): An Architectural and Social History.” A Thesis submitted in partial satisfaction of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in Art History, June 1975. Hotel del Coronado Archives, page 8.

3. James W. Reid, “The Building of Hotel del Coronado,” 6 page booklet, undated. Photocopy furnished by Christine Donovan, Director of Heritage Programs, Hotel del Coronado, 1500 Orange Avenue, Coronado, CA, 92118.

4. Ibid., p. 4.

5. Ibid., p. 4.

6. Ibid., p. 5.

7. Ibid., p. 5

8. Ibid., p. 6.

9. Ibid., p. 7.

10. Journal of San Diego History, Vol. 42, Winter 1996, Vol. 1, “The Park Brick Company” by Alexander D. Bevil. Brick manufacturing by Messrs. Babcock and Story on Coronado was a major undertaking and was known as the “Coronado Brick Company.” During the same period of construction as for the hotel, it grew to have a daily production of a half million common bricks. “Besides going into the construction of the Hotel del Coronado, bricks . . .were transported around the bay on the Coronado Beach Railroad to sites in San Diego.” The Coronado Brick Company was “the largest brick yard in the County, and regarded to be the largest in the State at that time.”

11. James W. Reid, “The Building of the Hotel del Coronado,” page 3.

12. Ibid., p. 5.

13. This difficult Structural Engineering task was performed by Degenkolb Engineers of San Francisco, California. Mr. Chris D. Poland was Principal in Charge of the work.

14. San Diego County Brochure, “The Historic San Diego County Administration Center.”

15. The Jewel on the Bay, a History Commemorating the 60th Anniversary of the San Diego County Administration Center, 1938-1998.

16. Ibid., p. 11.

17. Ibid., p. 11.

18. Mr. J. H. Davies very possibly would design the foundation differently if he was doing the job today. Since 1938, much has been learned about the effects of earthquake ground motion upon ground which is subject to “liquefaction.” This condition is now generally recognized as a potential problem in the tideland soils of San Diego Bay. It likely would not have been consideration for design of buildings in 1938. It was not until the 1970’s that it became a requirement to design building foundations for potential liquefaction of soils during earthquakes in the San Diego area.

19. The Jewel on the Bay, p. 12.

20. The Jewel on the Bay, pp. 12 and 13.

21. San Diego Transcript, November 22, 1999, p. 2A: “The center was recently recognized as one of the 1999 top three convention centers in the world by Meetings & Incentive magazine in Europe. In 1997 and 1999, the center received a Prime Site award from Facilities magazine.”

22. Donald J. Canty, “Glitter by the Bay – A few well-chosen architectural fireworks make San Diego’s new convention center more than just a faceless box,” Architectural Record, August 1990, McGraw-Hill, Inc.

23. The following Civil Engineering firms are recognized for their contribution to the Convention Center projects:

Phase One:

Civil engineering firm was George S. Nolte & Associates. Geotechnical firm was Woodward Clyde & Associates. Structural engineers were a joint venture of John A. Martin & Associates of Los Angeles and Atkinson, Johnson & Spurrier, Inc., of San Diego. John A. Martin conceived the structural scheme and is Structural Engineer of record. Edwin H. Johnson lead the work done in San Diego by the Atkinson firm.

Structural Engineering Consultant for the tented roof was Horst Berger Partners of New York, NY.

Plan check engineers were the firm of Ferver Engineering Company of San Diego. Testing and Inspection was provided by Testing Engineers of San Diego.

Phase Two:

Civil Engineering firm was John Knutsen & Associates/Winzler and Kelly Geotechnical Firm was Woodward, Clyde & Associates

Structural Engineering was provided by Martin & Martin of San Diego