Geotechnical Consulting Board Threadlines of Geotechnical and Engineering Geology firms in the Greater Los Angeles Metro-Southern California Area

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Downsizing of Caltech civil engineering program begins (1962)

Caltech was the first college in southern California to establish a student chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers. The Student Chapter at Caltech was officially dissolved on May 15, 1962, two years after a new student chapter of ASCE was established at UCLA, in April 1960.

Dr. Frank A. Nickell, Consulting Engineering Geologist (1942-73)

Frank Andrew Nickell PhD, PE, CEG (1906-75) was born in Beatrice, Nebraska in March 1906 and grew up in Los Angeles. He earned all of his degrees in geology and civil engineering at Caltech. He completed his BS in geology in 1927, M.S. in 1928, and Ph.D. in geology and civil engineering in 1931. During graduate school he was a teaching assistant in languages and physical education (along with his roommate Layton Stanton). His Ph.D. dissertation was on the Geology of the Soledad Quadrangle, Central California. He was the first geologist hired by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (in the fall of 1931) to map the rock exposures at Hoover Dam, which began construction in mid-1931. Nickell had already been assisting Caltech Prof. Leslie Ransome with his mapping at Hoover Dam. After Hoover Dam was completed in 1935, he worked on other BurRec dams, including Parker and Grand Coulee. He was named Chief Geologist of the Bureau of Reclamation in 1939, but left to open his own consultancy, based out of Whittier, in 1942. Nickell then took a position with Shell Oil Company and Standard Oil and Gas as a petroleum geologist from 1943 to 1944, but this work took him overseas. From 1945 until 1973 he was a consulting geologist on dams, hydroelectric development, irrigation, and geologic studies for companies and governments worldwide. In the early 1950s he moved to San Mateo, where he remained until he retired and moved to La Jolla, where he died in September 1975. He consulted on dam projects all over the world the remainder of his life, including the ill-fated Taum Sauk Upper Reservoir pumped storage project for Union Electric Co. of St. Louis in the St. Francois Mountains of Missouri. Completed between 1960-64, the rockfill embankment failed by overtopping in December 2005.

Converse thread (in Caltech Threadline)
R. V. Labarre, Consulting Engineer (1930-33; 1936-43); Labarre and Converse, Consulting Foundation Engineers (1933-36)

Robert Volant Labarre, PE, SE was born in Gretna, Louisiana (across the Mississippi River from New Orleans) in October 1873. By the time of the 1900 New Orleans Census he is listed as a “draftsman” for a construction company. In 1910 he was working as a civil engineer in Houston. By 1914 Lebarre had established his own construction firm in Birmingham, Alabama, doing work for the Southern Railway, among other clients. In 1915 he was the contractor of record for another project in Montgomery, Alabama.

In 1917 the Foundation Company of New York became the first tenant of the new Inner Harbor Navigation Canal being constructed in New Orleans. Shortly after America entered the First World War in April 1917, the Foundation Co. secured a contract with the French government to build steel-hulled merchant ships of 4,200 tons displacement in New Orleans. This was because of their expertise in constructing inexpensive (as compared to concrete) sheetpile cofferdam drydocks and slipways. The Foundation Company was America’s premier soils & foundation engineering firm of the early 20th Century, founded in 1901 by Daniel E. Moran, Franklin Remington, and Edwin S. Jarrett. They designed and constructed the foundations for most of the tallest buildings in Manhattan (Trinity, Woolworth, Whitehall, Singer, Banker’s Trust, and Municipal Buildings).

During the last year of the First World War Lebarre accepted a captain’s commission in the Army Corps of Engineers. In July 1918 he was sent to Camp Lee, Virginia as an instructor for the Corps’ Engineer Reserve Officers' Training Camp. Officer commissions were awarded to individuals with specialized expertise in civil engineering and heavy construction, who could teach the engineer officer candidates, freeing up the Army’s career engineers for wartime duty overseas. After the war he referred to himself as “Cap Labarre,” and used “Captain R.V. Labarre” as his byline in the BSSA articles he published in 1936 and ’37.

His role in the construction of the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal in New Orleans provided Labarre with unique experience dealing with dredge spoils, soil consolidation, dewatering, and port facilities, which were to sustain him through the balance of his professional career. In 1919 he departed New Orleans to build some port structures in Jacksonville, Florida. By 1920 he listed himself as a building contractor working out of Jacksonville, Florida. In October-November 1920, the Foundation Company dispatched him and another engineer named Thomas Dickson to Paita, Peru, to provide input for construction of a project located there. He returned to the firm’s headquarters in New York in November 1920, and it was at this time that he formally affiliated with ASCE.

Labarre then spent most of the 1920s working in the Detroit area on construction projects for the automotive industry, which expended dramatically during that decade. When the Great Depression struck, he retired and moved to Glendale, California, adjacent to Los Angeles. He soon found retirement dull and Los Angeles teeming with development. He decided to get back into the foundation construction business. When engineering registration was enacted in 1929, he was one of the first to apply, becoming Registered Civil Engineer #298 of the 5,035 who were granted registration that first year (July 1, 1929 to June 30, 1930).

Lebarre had designed and built equipment for testing the bearing capacity of soils for building foundations, and tried to sell these services to architects, engineers, and contractors. In early 1930 Lebarre approached Professor Fred Converse at Caltech, enticing him to work part-time with Lebarre as a consultant, and that he would teach Converse what he knew about the emerging field of soil mechanics, because he was corresponding with Austrian Professor Karl Terzaghi (1883-1963). Converse had never been associated with foundations, but he was aware of Terzaghi’s articles that had recently appeared in Engineering News Record, while Terzaghi was working on differential settlement problems at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), between 1926-30. Terzaghi’s acumen for engineering geology, seepage, and the new field of soil mechanics was being splashed across the forefront of civil engineering literature during the numerous post-mortems on the ill-fated St. Francis Dam disaster north of Los Angeles in March 1928.

By January 1933 Converse agreed to form a partnership with Lebarre, making them the first soils engineers working out of the Los Angeles area. The part-time arrangement was acceptable to Converse because he was teaching full-time at Caltech. The M6.3 Long Beach Earthquake of March 10th 1933 changed all of that. Following the quake, Lebarre served as one of two ASCE representatives on the prestigious Joint Technical Committee on Earthquake Protection chaired by Caltech President Robert A. Milliken (described in Notable boards and expert panels, etc., at the end of this document).

According to Leroy Crandall, Labarre capitalized on the passage of the Field Act in 1933, following the Long Beach Earthquake. The act required retrofitting, repair, or replacement of more than 230 school buildings in southern California constructed of unreinforced masonry. Lebarre quickly gained respect in Los Angeles engineering circles, and became one of the founding members of the Structural Engineers Association of Southern California (SEAOC) that same year (along with Professors R.R. Martel, F.J. Converse, and T. von Karman at Caltech).

Lebarre also developed several plate and pile load tests to ascertain the insitu bearing capacity of foundations (see the July 1933 issue of Popular Science, p. 44; and later, “Test Pit Exploration Kit in Foundation Study,” which appeared in Engineering News Record on Aug 6, 1936). Labarre was also credited in an article written by Fred Converse which appeared in the April 1933 issue of Civil Engineering. Lebarre was the only engineer who marketed himself to prepare foundation engineering reports, which structural engineers desperately needed to carry out this work, during the height of the Great Depression.

Lebarre soon hired Caltech students Bill Moore and Trent Dames to perform plate load tests using 12” x 12” steel plates on exposed ground to back out the allowable bearing capacity of the various school sites. They would load these plates until they started sinking into the ground, assuming this to be the ultimate bearing capacity by dividing the figure by 2, 3, or 4, depending on the type of foundation (2 for an isolated footing beneath a building interior, 3 for an exterior footing, and by 4 for continuous strip footings).

Labarre continued his correspondence with Karl Terzaghi, who had accepted a professorship in Vienna. Lebarre hosted Terzaghi on his tour of California in 1936, following the First International Conference on Soil Mechanics and Foundation Engineering at Cambridge, Massachusetts. Labarre sent a chauffeured car to pick up Terzaghi in San Francisco and took him on a circuitous tour of California, through Yosemite, over Tioga Pass, and down the Owens Valley, along the Los Angeles Aqueduct (see Dick Goodman’s biography of Terzaghi, The Engineer as Artist).

Terzaghi was well received in southern California, including a dinner at Caltech hosted by Prof. Theodore von Karman (1881-1963), who had joined the faculty at Caltech in 1930 (where he directed the Daniel Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory). The Hungarian-born von Karman was joined by Austrians von Terzaghi and Richard von Mises (1883-1953), the Gordon-McKay Professor of Aerodynamics and Applied Mathematics at Harvard University. The three men had served in the same Austro-Hungarian aviation engineering unit during the First World War! What storied academic careers they all went on to have in the United States!

Labarre served as SEAOC’s first president in 1934. In this capacity he made numerous trips to Washington, DC to lobby the US Coast & Geodetic Survey to establish strong motion sensors in California, so designers could glean some idea of how much lateral load they should be designing for. These efforts met with considerable success in the wake of the 1933 Long Beach Quake. The Coast & Geodetic Survey allotted funds for the determination of dynamic properties of important structures, like dams. They hired a young engineer named John A. Blume (BA ’33, BCE ’34, PhD ‘67 Stanford) who built a dynamic exciter and used it on the newly completed Morris Dam to determine the fundamental periods of vibration and deflection characteristics, the first such studies ever undertaken on a dam (described towards end of this document, under “First dynamic properties evaluation of a dam -1934”).

The partnership with Professor Converse appears to have ended in 1936, because Converse felt overwhelmed by the pressures of what had evolved into ‘two full-time jobs.’ He continued to consult for Lebarre on a case-by-case basis. Now 63 years old, Lebarre continued penning articles on seismic design issues for the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America in 1936 and ’37. By 1938 Labarre chaired the ASCE Committee to cooperate with the ASTM Committee D-18 on Soils for Engineering Purposes. It lists his affiliation as “Consulting Foundation Engineer, Los Angeles.” At that time he was active in studying earthquake phenomena and their effects of structures.

Another future luminary who worked for Lebarre in the late 1930s was William F. “Bill” Swiger. Soon after Karl Terzaghi returned to the United States in September 1938, Lebarre suggested to Swiger that he should attend graduate school at Harvard to work with Terzaghi and Professor Arthur Casagrande. When Ralph Peck left Harvard in mid-January 1939 to work with Terzaghi on the Chicago Subway, it was Bill Swiger who took his position at Harvard! Swiger spoke very highly of Labarre. He related that “Lebarre read everything Terzaghi and Leroy F. Harza wrote, and tried to adapt the principles and information to the construction situations in California.” Swiger became Vice President of Engineering for Stone & Webster in Boston, and worked on some of the deepest sky scrapper foundations and significant dams in the world. After retiring, he returned to Buhl, Idaho where he and his wife Mary had grown up. Swiger was a graduate of the University of Washington, where he had been exposed to soil mechanics by Professor Bob Hennes, one of Terzaghi’s original students at MIT in 1928-29. Hennes also taught Bill Shannon, of Shannon & Wilson, and Jim Gould of Moran, Proctor, Mueser & Rutledge in New York City (who in 1958-59 directed the 18-month study of the Via de los Osas Landslide along Pacific Coast Highway for the California Department of Public Works).

Labarre’s last work products appear to have been wartime consultations for the Ports of Oakland and Los Angeles, both in 1941. His May 1941 report for a joint venture of Bechtel-McCone-Parsons Corporation addressed dredging and filling operations to develop the Army’s Oakland Sub-Port of the San Francisco Port of Embarkation (renamed the Oakland Army Base in 1944). His work in Los Angeles was titled “Foundation Investigations for Proposed Administration Buildings at the Los Angeles Municipal Airport” in July 1941. Labarre died of prostate cancer in Wickenburg, Arizona on September 27, 1944, at age 71, during the Second World War.

Donald R. Warren Company (1940-89)

Donald R. Warren, PE (1897-1973) had a remarkable career in heavy construction, civil, structural, and geotechnical engineering, as well as architecture. His professional career began with the enlargement of Big Meadows (hydraulic fill) Dam in the mid-1920s. He then worked on the deep water caissons for the original Hayward-San Mateo Bridge in 1927-29. He became a registered civil engineer 1166 with the initial batch of 5,079 individuals registered in California in 1929-30, based on education and experience.

From 1929-31 he worked for the State Dept of Public Works evaluating potential dams sites in the Carquinez Straits and near Rio Vista to mitigate salinity intrusion of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. In 1931 he made the highest score on the civil service examination for civil engineering and was selected to be the Senior Field Engineer for construction of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, which opened in November 1936. When that project concluded he decided to return to Caltech to complete his bachelor’s degree, graduating in June 1938 (at age 41). In 1938 he was placed in charge of all bridge construction in southern California for the California Division of Highways.

In mid-1940 Warren announced that he was opening his own civil and structural engineering consultancy and, that he had been promoted to Lt Commander in the Navy Civil Engineering Corps Reserve [although no record of him was found at the Seabee Museum; he may have resigned because of his war-related work at Terminal Island, see below)].

In late 1940 Warren established a partnership with Caltech Professor Frederick J. Converse, which allowed him an entrée into soil mechanics and foundation engineering for work on the Long Beach Naval Shipyard and Terminal Island. The firm flourished during the war with defense related work, which included construction associated with the rapid expansion of the Port of Los Angeles-Long Beach. This included design and construction of a 1100 ft long dry dock, at that time the largest on the West Coast.

Warren and Converse also worked out the engineering specifics for the dredged and pile-supported slipways for the Marinship tanker shipyards operated by Bechtel Corporation in Richardson Bay, in the San Francisco Bay just north of the Golden Gate Bridge.

During the war the Warren Co. worked with a limited partnership called Allied Engineers, who designed and built the Fleet Operating Base at Terminal Island just prior to and during the Second World War. One of their wartime projects included the Roosevelt Naval Base on Terminal Island, designed by a joint venture of Warren, along with noted Los Angeles architects Paul R. Williams and Adrian Wilson. During the war the Donald R. Warren Co. also designed Kaiser Steel’s new mill and fabrication facility in Fontana, the 12th largest steel plant in the USA. James Fox (BSCE Caltech ’36) was chief engineer and M.W. Sahlberg (Caltech ’38) was a senior engineer on the Kaiser project.

As the post-war building boom accelerated in the late 1940s, the Warren Co. continued growing, developing niches in architecture, structural engineering, materials testing, and foundation engineering. They maintained discipline groups that employed engineers and architects. The structural group designed the Long Beach Blvd Bridge over the Los Angeles River in 1946 and even designed concrete arch dams, like Matilija Dam in Ventura County.

Their foundations group grew markedly as the Los Angeles area boomed with residential development. The Warren Co. pioneered use of smaller diameter Modified California Soil Sampler and did soil and geology work for lots of residential tracts up in the hills. The firm also did a sizable volume of work for the government, like the Navy Supply Center on Rough & Ready Island, the Fairfield–Suisun Army Depot, and foundations for the massive Goldstone Tracking Station at Fort Irwin, in 1961. They also did all of the geotech work for Rocketdyne’s testing facilities in the Santa Susanna Mountains in the 1960s.

The Warren Co. generally employed a lower standard- of-care for their geotechnical work than that employed by their two principal competitors, Dames and Moore and Crandall & Associates. According to Beach Leighton (whom they retained to help bolster their geotechnical capabilities in the mid-1960s), they did not appreciate engineering geology. This resulted in plethora of lawsuits, esp. on work they performed in the Palos Verdes Peninsula, where they had “supervised” numerous grading jobs back in the 1950s, before anyone recognized the scale of paleo-landslides that blanketed the uplifted terraces.

In the mid -1960s the firm was located at 930 Sunset Blvd. in Los Angeles. Some of their key geotechnical personnel included: Herb Nicola, PE, Cecil F. Collins, PE, Herbert J. Recker, PE, and Doug Moran CEG (1958-63), Ronald J. Lejman (staff engineer 1965-67), and Gerald A. Nicoll, CEG. H.W. Graham was their chief soils technician in the mid-1960s.

In the late 1940s Don Warren began donating funds (>$12,000) to the University of Nevada-Reno in 1946-48, because his wife, Lora Belle Lamberson Warren (1897-1985), had received her teacher’s diploma from UNR in May 1917 (the Warrens were married in Yerington, Nevada in June 1920). Donald Warren later received an honorary degree from UNR and Lora set up the Donald Warren Endowment for UNR after he died in 1973. The Warrens lived in La Canada, as did their son, Donald F. Warren.

Donald R. Warren died in January 1973 at age 75, but the business continued for awhile after that, presumably under the control of Donald F. Warren (1921-76), who died in July 1976. In July 1985 the Los Angeles Times reported that Robert F. Timpson (1924-2001) was elected president and chief executive of Donald R. Warren Co. The precise date of their closure is unknown, but thought to be around ~1989.

Douglas E. Moran, Inc. (1974-present)

Douglas E. Moran, CEG, GE (BS Geol ’58 USC) was both an engineering geologist and geotechnical engineer. He was educated in geology at USC and in geotechnical engineering at UCLA. He cut his teeth working for L.T. Evans (1955-56), Maurseth & Howe (1957-58), Donald E. Warren Co (1958-63), Hood & Schmidt (1963-64), and R.T. Frankian (1964-73). When Bing Yen departed Leighton in 1973, Moran became Leighton’s chief soils engineer for about a year (1973-74). He was one of the first approved engineering geologists by the City of Los Angeles in 1960. He co-edited the noteworthy volume titled “Geology, seismicity and environmental impact,” AEG Special Publication, released in 1973. After passing the PE exam in 1974 he founded his own firm, which was based in Tustin, CA. One of his first projects after incorporating his firm in 1977 was the Big Rock Mesa Landslide litigation. Rodney T. Masuda (BS Geol ‘78; MS ‘81 USC) was Doug’s senior associate and technical manager/chief geologist until 2001.

G. A. Nicoll & Associates (1972-2008)

Founded in September 1972 by engineering geologist Gerald A. Nicoll, CEG (BA Geol 1960 Univ Redlands; MS ’63 Wyoming). Previous to this, Nicoll had worked for the Donald R. Warren Co., Geotechnical Consultants, Stone Geological Services, Soil Mechanics & Foundation Engineers, Leighton & Associates, and as Chief Geologist of Geo Labs (1969-72). G.A. Nicoll & Associates were based in Santa Ana, and later, in Irvine. Gary Stoney, CEG work for the firm from 1973-77. Peter C. Yong, GE (BSCE Brighton; MS Stanford) joined the firm in the late 1970s and seved as Executive Vice President. Gerald D. Horton, CEG (BS Geol BYU) serves as Chief of Exploration, Wallace G. Nelson, GE (BSCE and MS Univ Toronto) was Associate Geotechnical Engineer, and Hugh A. Marley, GE (BSCE Univ Madras, ME, PhD Univ Poona) served as a consultant to the firm.

Converse Foundation Engineering Company (1946-59); Converse Foundation Engineers (1960-66); Converse, Davis & Associates (1966-78); Converse-Ward-Davis-Dixon (1978-1983); Converse Consultants (1983-2001); Converse Professional Group

From 1946-49 Caltech Professor Fred Converse operated a modest consultancy known as Converse Consultants. In 1949 Converse took on one of his own students James R. “Bob” Davis (1924-82) (BSCE ‘48, MS ‘49 Caltech) as his first full-time employee, shortly after Bob completed his master’s degree in soil mechanics. Bob Davis had grown up in Covina and Monrovia, attending Pasadena City College before entering Caltech on the Navy’s V-12 program, during the war. Davis eventually became the president and chief executive officer when Fred Converse retired in 1966.

Converse Consultants continued to grow through the 1950s and 60s, servicing many clients in the Los Angeles area, such as LADWP, LACoFCD, and MWD. In 1966 the firm’s name became Converse, Davis & Associates and Jack Schoustra became the chief engineer. They purchased property and built their own office at 126 Del Mar Blvd in Pasadena.

In late 1968 six associates became owners of the firm, in equal parts: J. Robert Davis, PE, Jack J. Schoustra, PE, Roy A. Hoffman, CEG, Jay L. Smith, CEG, Charles R. MacFadyen, PE (BSCE 1955 Univ Saskatchewan), Thomas D. Lake, PE, and Schaefer J. Dixon, PE. Other senior staff included Paul Davis, CEG, who worked for the firm in 1963-67 and 1968-73, before departing to manage the geologists at Fugro (1973-79), and Hugh Mulholland, PE, was a project engineer. Howard A. “Buzz” Spellman, CEG (1927-2015) (BA Geol ’53, Cincinnati) was hired by Roy Hoffman in 1963 and succeeded George Curtin, CEG (a former DWR geologist) in 1981 to become the firm’s senior engineering geologist, which he retained until retirement in 1996.

In 1970 Schaefer J. Dixon, PE became Chief Engineer after Jay Smith and Jack Schoustra departed to start Fugro (described below). The firm opened a branch office in Orange County in 1965, managed by Chuck MacFadyen, who 11 years later supervised the establishment of the firm’s Las Vegas office, in 1976. By the mid-1980s the Orange County office included geologists Dennis Hannan, CEG, Mark Bryant, CEG, Harry Audell, CEG, and Bob Ruff, CEG.

In 1978 Converse merged with Joseph S. Ward & Associates of Caldwell, New Jersey and become Converse-Ward-Davis-Dixon, making them a coast-to-coast company. At that time the Washington, DC, Tampa, and San Francisco office of Ward were also absorbed into the new firm. They retained Gene Miller (formerly of Harding-Miller-Lawson Assoc) as the manager for the San Francisco branch office, which Ward had established in 1973. In 1981 Converse opened a new office in Seattle with Eugene Macmaster as the manager. Bob Davis (1924-1982) remained as Chairman of the Board until he died of bone cancer in July 1982. Joe Ward stepped down as President and CEO of the firm in 1983 and retired to Florida, where he died of a heart attack in January 1994.

The firm’s name changed to Converse Consultants West around ~1983. They also split off a separate firm named Converse Environmental in the mid-1980s, with offices in Pasadena and Costa Mesa. Converse was headquartered in Pasadena until the late 1990s, when they sold their property on West Walnut Street and moved to Monrovia. Their Chief Geotechnical Engineer was L.T. “Tom” Evans, Jr., PhD, GE (BSCE ’56; MS ’58 Stanford, PhD ’81 Berkeley). Converse Consultants is now to an employee-owned company with 10 national locations and over 300 employees. It is headquartered in Monrovia under the name The Converse Professional Group, with branch offices Costa Mesa and Redlands (managed by Chris Koepke, CEG (BS Geol ’84 USC).

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