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Skilling, John B. (1921-1998), Engineer

HistoryLink.org Essay 9632 : Printer-Friendly Format

The innovative designs and professional achievements of structural engineer John Skilling have drawn widespread recognition for projects that shape the skyline of Seattle and of cities around the world. Among many Skilling projects, the twin towers at New York’s World Trade Center and their engineering attracted world-wide attention as the world's tallest structures at the time of their 1973 construction, and again at  their destruction in the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.  Under his leadership over 45 years, the Seattle-based firm  Skilling Ward Magnusson Barkshire designed notable structures in Seattle ranging from the Pacific Science Center to the Columbia Tower and the Washington State Convention & Trade Center as well as projects in 41 states and 24 countries.  In recognition of Skilling’s work, in 1964 Engineering News Record identified him as “the prototype of the modern structural engineer” (ENR), and in 1986 local media called him “Seattle’s Man of Steel” (Pacific). Architect William J. Bain Jr. (b. 1930) described him as “a legendary structural engineer, a lyrical designer, and one of the top conceptual skyscraper engineers in the world” (Bain).

Growing Up in Engineering

Born on October 8, 1921, in Los Angeles as the son of a civil engineer of Scotch-Irish descent, John Bower Skilling was exposed early to the work of engineering.  The Skilling family of five children -- John and his sisters Virginia and Helen and brothers Donald and Bill -- and their mother accompanied their father from city to city for work on federal construction projects, mainly post offices. During summers John worked on these projects' construction. At age 13, Skilling became the youngest Eagle Scout in California.  The family’s travels brought them to Seattle, where in 1940 John Skilling graduated from Kent Senior High School and enrolled at the University of Washington, becoming a member of Delta Epsilon fraternity. 

In an Economics class, Skilling met Mary Jane Stender.  They had their first date on January 1, 1942, and married in 1943. At the outset of World War II, Skilling sought to enlist in the Air Corps, but his poor eyesight exempted him from military service.  He took a job with the Boeing Company designing hangars “with impressive long-span roofs” (Bain).  While still a student in 1945, he went to work for the W. H. Witt Company, Consulting Engineers, with offices in Seattle’s Lloyd Building.  He completed his studies and graduated in 1947 with a B.S. in civil engineering.

The young Skilling family -- Susan was born in 1947, Bill in 1949, and Ann in 1956 -- lived in apartments in various parts of the city, then purchased their first home in Seattle’s View Ridge neighborhood before moving to a home at Webster Point designed by noted modernist architect Paul Kirk.  Later, Skilling and his wife resided in Madison Park. “His enthusiasm for how things work spilled over from his business side into his personal life. While most fathers teach their children to build a model airplane or car, John helped his son make a fully working television set” (DJC Century).

Strong Structures for Strong Designs

Skilling became a principal of the Witt firm in 1950. He led the evolution of a small, regionally oriented firm into the nationally acclaimed structural engineering organization that it became over the nearly 45 years of his direction.  In 1955, the firm became Worthington & Skilling; in 1960 it became Worthington, Skilling, Helle & Jackson;  in 1967, Skilling, Helle, Christiansen, Robertson; and in 1983, Skilling Ward Rogers Barkshire. Beginning in 1987 it became Skilling Ward Magnusson Barkshire until Skilling’s retirement in 1995, when the firm employed a staff of 72.

Beginning early in his career, Skilling’s innovative structural work supported strong architectural design statements.  Architect John Nesholm recalls hearing reports of a meeting of the Naramore Bain Brady Johanson (NBBJ) design team including Minoru Yamasaki (1912-1986) early in the process of designing the United States Science Pavilion (later Pacific Science Center) for the Seattle World’s Fair of 1962, with Skilling present.  Reviewing the project drawings, Skilling noted that the columns supporting the geometric domes seemed “a bit chunky.” He said, “I can make those columns thinner” (Nesholm). The resulting graceful structures became emblematic of the fair’s futuristic theme, and remain a Seattle landmark.

Another innovative early project was the 13-story IBM Building in Pittsburgh (1963), “the first exterior-space-frame office building and the first building to use 100,000 psi high-strength steel” (Bain). Yet another was the 20-story IBM Building (1200 5th Avenue) built in 1964 in Seattle, with its distinctive supportive archway design by Yamasaki with Naramore Bain Brady Johanson, a structural antecedent of the World Trade Center.

The Twin Towers

The Skilling firm’s work with Minoru Yamasaki on Seattle projects led to the selection of the firm for engineering New York’s twin World Trade Center towers.  William J. Bain Jr. of the Seattle-based firm NBBJ (formerly Naramore Bain Brady & Johanson), who collaborated frequently with Skilling and highlighted his notable achievements in sponsoring Skilling’s nomination for recognition by the National Academy of Engineering, wrote that the twin towers project “used three studies that were ‘firsts’ in the field:  a comprehensive wind-environmental study, a boundary-layer wind-tunnel study, and a human-sensitivity-to-building-motion study.  The World Trade Center was also the first building to use prefabricated, multiple-column-and-spandrel steel wall panels.  And it was the first building to use mechanical damping units to reduce wind excitation” (Bain). 

At the time of their completion in 1973, the World Trade Center towers stood as the world’s tallest structures, which held until the 1974 completion of Chicago’s Sears Tower. The towers survived a bomb attack in 1993. In the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the towers withstood the initial airplane impacts, allowing thousands of people to escape, before collapsing due to uncontained fires.

Shaping the Seattle Skyline

Skilling’s engineering innovation made possible some of Seattle most distinctively shaped structures, including the Kingdome in 1976, Sea-First Headquarters Building in 1969, Rainier Tower in 1977, the Washington State Convention & Trade Center in 1988, One Union Square in 1981, and Two Union Square in 1989. 

As Bain notes:  “For Seattle’s Kingdome (1976) [demolished 2000], John and his colleague John "Jack" V. Christiansen made good use of John’s pioneering work in the 1950s on thin-shell concrete structures.  With double curvature shapes in the roof, the Kingdome became the largest thin-shell concrete structure in the world.  John’s Sea-First Headquarters Building [1001 4th Avenue, dedicated 1969, Seattle's tallest building until 1985 when the Columbia Center surpassed it] had only four exterior corner columns at the lobby level” (Bain). 

Skilling again teamed with Yamasaki and Naramore Bain Brady & Johanson (NBBJ) on the Rainier Tower (1301 5th Avenue, Seattle, completed 1977).  Bain describes the building’s unique structure as “like a wine glass with the stem showing and the pedestal underground, where you don’t see it.  And with the first rentable space at the 12th floor, it leaves view corridors to and from the classical Olympic Hotel and the Skinner Building across Fifth Avenue” (Bain conversation).

Bain observes that Seattle's tallest building, the Columbia Center (701 5th Avenue) was, at 76 stories "the first in which composite columns were used at the apexes to reduce wind sway in a triangular-braced building" (Bain). He noted that for the Washington State Convention & Trade Center (1988), "John conceived of economical, yet creative ways for the building to span 12 lanes of freeway and tree city streets" (Bain). He said of their collaboration, "One of the last projects I worked on with John was Seattle’s Two Union Square [601 Union Street, 1989], at the time the most economical building of its height ever built.  In this building, he pioneered the use of steel tubes filled with a record-breaking high-strength concrete ... as interior columns.  Using this technique, which has since become standard in the industry, we were able to provide 10 corner offices on each typical rental floor” (Bain). 

Skilling also designed the structure for One Union Square (621 Union Street, completed 1981), working with the Seattle architectural firm TRA.

Seattle's Man of Steel

In 1986, Eric Nalder’s Seattle Times profile of “Seattle’s Man of Steel John Skilling” identified “a baker’s dozen” of Skilling’s projects along the Seattle Skyline: 

  • Pacific Science Center
  • Marsh & McLennan Building (formerly the Daon Building)
  • Century Square
  • One Union Square
  • Rainier Bank Tower
  • Washington Building
  • IBM Building
  • Unigard Financial Center
  • Seafirst Building
  • Seafirst Fifth Avenue Plaza
  • Columbia Seafirst Center
  • Henry M. Jackson Federal Building
  • Kingdome


Nalder wrote that  “The unfamous Skilling goes to work on the 22nd floor of the 28-story Unigard Financial Center at Fourth Avenue and University Street.  The building is one of 140 building projects that his firm -- now called Skilling, Ward, Rogers, Barkshire Inc. -- engineered in this city. ... His current projects range from Saudi Arabia to Bangkok.  The Far East is Skilling’s favorite territory.  So how does a guy from Seattle get into such a big league?" (Nalder). Nalder thinks that the Pacific Northwest produces good structural engineers because of the earthquake danger here.

The power of Skilling’s achievements and the visibility of his projects grew over time, meriting professional and public recognition not only in Seattle but nationally and internationally. A 1986 article in the Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce noted of Skilling “He’s one of the biggest. He engineered almost every major building in Seattle’s skyline. He designed the steel guts of three of the nation’s eight tallest buildings, including New York’s biggest landmark, the twin World Trade Center towers.  His projects dot the globe” (DJC).   According to another summary of Skilling’s career: “At one point ... the president of U.S. Steel was giving a presentation on the top 10 buildings in America, and Mr. Skilling had helped designed four of them. ... It was the ability to innovate that separated Mr. Skilling from other engineers.”

The originality of Skilling’s work and the designs that incorporated his structural inventions sometimes eluded public appreciation, as the in the case of “the original Seafirst Building, in which so much weight is borne by the interior elevator core that the rest of the building can be open to the outside ... .  Not surprisingly Mr. Skilling thought that the no-frills building … dubbed locally as ‘the box the Space Needle came in,’ was beautiful.  ‘It's not phony,’ he said” (Schaefer).

Around Nation and World

Skilling and his firm collaborated in the design of numerous projects around the United States, including the David M. Grant Medical Center at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, California, the Minneapolis Convention Center (1990) recognized for design excellence, and the U.S. Steel Building (Pittsburgh, 1970).  Projects outside the country include perhaps most recognizably Alsalam Aircraft Maintenance Hangar at King Khalid International Airport, Riyadh (1992).

Bain wrote of his colleague: “According to Who’s Who in Engineering (1998), John was ‘personally responsible for the structural design of many of the most significant structures in the U.S.’   These structures included more than 75 high-rise buildings (four of the world’s tallest at the time) and more than 40 long-span structures” (Bain). In an article written for The Seattle Times at the time of Skilling’s death in 1998, David Schaefer reports that “His sights were often set even higher.  In a 1986 interview with The Seattle Times, Mr. Skilling said, ‘I'd love to do a building 150 to 200 stories tall’” (Schaefer).

Awards and Honors

Both John Skilling the engineer and buildings crafted by him received numerous honors presented by professional organizations. These include more than 85 awards for excellence in design. His honors include:

  • Construction Man of the Year, Engineering News Record, 1966
  • Engineer of the Year, Consulting Engineers Council of Washington, 1967
  • Engineer of the Year, Washington Society of Professional Engineers, 1967
  • Engineer of the Year, Structural Engineers Association of Washington, 1967
  • Election as the only structural engineer in the first election of the National Academy of Engineering (the engineering counterpart to the National Academy of Science), 1985
  • Honorary AIA Member, American Institute of Architects (national), 1994

Seattle Mayor Norman Rice declared June 3, 1994, John Skilling Day.

William Bain Jr assessed the contribution of Skilling’s personal attributes to his success:  

“John was the most positive, solution-oriented engineer I have ever met.  No matter how difficult the problem, he always thought that somehow an effective design could be worked out.  I believe he was a genius.  It was amazing to watch him play with forms in the most lyrical and poetic ways and reduce construction costs at the same time.  He was also a teacher; he understood the complexities of structural engineering so well that he made things seem simple, even for us architects with whom he collaborated so well” (Bain).

Last Years

Skilling traveled extensively for work, and for pleasure. He particularly enjoyed exploring Asian cultures, along with his family.  He also relished Asian cuisine, and would make a research project out of planning and executing the preparation of a multi-course Chinese dinner, with assignments for other family members.

Following his retirement, Skilling worked on the restoration of Seattle’s historic Mann Building with his daughter Ann and son-in-law Rick Yoder, to make a home for their restaurant, Wild Ginger. 

John B. Skilling died in Seattle on March 5, 1998.

Sources:
 “John Skilling: Architects’ Engineer Plans the Biggest,” Engineering News-Record April 2, 1964; Eric Nalder, “Seattle’s Man of Steel John Skilling,” The Seattle Times  Pacific, January 5, 1986; David Schaefer, “Structural Engineer Skilling Dies -- His Work, Vision Shaped Much of Seattle’s Skyline,” The Seattle Times, March 6, 1998; William J. Bain Jr., “John B. Skilling 1921-1988, Pioneering Building Engineer,” Memorial Tributes, National Academy of Engineering website accessed July 2010 (http://books.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=12734&page=272); Marga Rose Hancock conversation with William J. Bain Jr., July 13, 2010; “Skilling Engineer of the Year,” Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce, 1986; “John Skilling: DJC Top Projects of the Century in Washington State,” Daily Journal of Commerce website accessed July 2010 (http://www.djc.com/special/century/skilling.html); Marga Rose Hancock interview with Mary Jane Skilling, Susan Skilling, and Ann Skilling Yoder, May 26, 2010; Marga Rose Hancock conversation with John Nesholm, October 2, 2010.


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John Skilling (1921-1998), 1975
Courtesy Skilling family


John Skilling (1921-1998), 1940
Courtesy Skilling family


Pacific Science Center (Minoru Yamasaki, 1962), Seattle, ca. 1962
Photo by Chas R. Pearson, Courtesy MKA


Sea-First Center, 1001 Fourth Avenue (NBBJ with Pietro Belluschi, 1969), Seattle, 1969
Courtesy MKA


World Trade Center (Minoru Yamasaki, 1973), New York City, 1973
Courtesy MKA


Henry M. Jackson Federal Building (Bassetti, 1974), with romanesque arch retained from the razed Burke Building, 2nd Avenue and Marion Street, Seattle, 1974
Courtesy MKA


Kingdome (NBBJ, 1976), Seattle, 1976
Courtesy Magnusson Klemencic Associates (MKA)


Rainier Tower ((Minoru Yamasaki with NBBJ, 1977), Seattle, 1977
Courtesy MKA


One Union Square (TRA, 1981), Seattle, 1981
Courtesy MKA


Columbia Center (Chester Lindsey, 1985), Seattle, 1985
Photo by Morley Baer, Courtesy MKA


Century Square (3D/International, 1986), Seattle, 1986
Courtesy MKA


John Skilling, "Man of Steel" on cover of Pacific Magazine, January 5, 1986
Courtesy The Seattle Times


Washington State Convention & Trade Center (TRA, 1988), Seattle, 1988
Courtesy MKA


Two Union Square (NBBJ, 1989), Seattle, 1989
Photo by Timothy Hursley, Courtesy MKA


Seattle Municipal Tower (Bassetti Architects, 1990), Seattle, 1990
Courtesy MKA


 
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