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Eugene Birnbaum; Innovative Engineer

June 11, 1999|ELAINE WOO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Eugene D. Birnbaum, an innovative, self-taught structural engineer who helped design more than 20,000 homes, high-rises, restaurants, bridges and industrial buildings in Southern California during a 50-year career, died May 30 in Los Angeles. He was 83.

The cause of death was an infection after hip surgery at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, said his son, Michael H. Birnbaum.

Although Birnbaum was involved in such landmark projects as the Spruce Goose and the retrofitting of the Watts Towers, his influence may be more widely seen in mundane projects, from drive-in movie screens and fast-food stands to most of the International House of Pancakes, Chuck E. Cheese and Sizzler restaurants on the West Coast.

"There is probably not a single person in Southern California who has not entrusted their own life or their family to the safety of a structure designed by Gene Birnbaum," said Peter S. Higgins, a structural engineer and longtime friend.

Birnbaum also pioneered methods that made construction involving major excavation safer. He was the first engineer in the United States to use computer modeling to study how high-rise commercial buildings respond to earthquakes or other stress, known as post-elastic behavior.

The son of Polish and Latvian immigrants, Birnbaum was born in 1915 near Framingham, Mass. He grew up during the Depression working a variety of menial jobs, including cleaning cesspools and laboring with a pick and shovel on construction sites. Unable to afford to attend college, he studied civil engineering through correspondence courses, earning his license in 1943.

During World War II, he worked at Hughes Aircraft and was assigned to make stress calculations for building the Spruce Goose, Howard Hughes' gargantuan wooden seaplane. In 1952 he became a structural engineer, opening Eugene D. Birnbaum & Associates on Silver Lake Boulevard in Los Angeles three years later.

In 1959 he won international acclaim for his engineering work on the Dusseldorf Theater in Germany. The spans and arches that he helped design were so pure and simple that renowned architect Richard Neutra left much of the inner structure exposed or outlined.

Birnbaum "was not only incredibly practical but a real genius," said Los Angeles architect Harry Newman, who had Birnbaum's help in designing the A&M Records building on the same La Brea Avenue site as film star Charlie Chaplin's former studio. Architects "need someone who can take your dreams and improve on them. Gene was able to do that."

Though slightly disheveled--Newman remembers Birnbaum's rumpled collar and ubiquitous slide rule sticking out of a shirt pocket--Birnbaum was known for his ability to craft elegant and simple solutions to complicated problems. An example was his idea for a safer and cheaper way to shore up excavation sites.

Before the 1950s, when contractors had to dig a big hole in the ground, they buttressed the sides of the excavation with beams and struts that were cumbersome, expensive to install and hard to design around. Inspired by the techniques that German engineer Karl Terzaghi used in building the Berlin subway system, Birnbaum found a way to support the sides of the hole by pushing the earth from the backside of the foundation wall, a method known as tie-back shoring.

From the 1960s to the 1980s, when downtown Los Angeles' skyline was growing, Birnbaum was the engineer most called on to ensure that "the city didn't fall into the great big holes" being dug for high-rise buildings, Higgins said.

Other Birnbaum contributions include two Southern California icons. He developed a quicker and cheaper way to encase and erect drive-in movie screens, using concrete instead of steel. And, when a contractor asked him what could be done with a huge post-World War II surplus of aluminum alloy, he came up with the prefabricated fast-food stand. Many of the 1,300 stands he designed are still in use, Higgins said.

In the 1960s Birnbaum also designed and wrote the building codes for a common tool of modern life, the earthquake-safe storage rack used widely in warehouses and discount barns such as Costco and Home Depot.

Well-known for his sense of humor, Birnbaum regaled colleagues with lyrics about engineering set to famous Christmas carols. One favorite, an ode to the building code, was sung to "Let It Snow": "Oh the building code is frightful/Plan checkers less than delightful. . . ."

Birnbaum, a past president of the Society of American Structural Engineers and a fellow of the Society for Advancement of Science and Engineering, taught engineering to several generations of architects as a member of the UCLA Extension faculty from 1953 to 1985. He also provided engineering scholarships at UCLA and the Cal State campuses at Fullerton and Northridge through the Eugene Birnbaum Foundation.

He is survived by sons Stevan and Michael and four grandchildren.

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