Career Began
Steve Johnston
Steve Johnston
Source: Peter Lee
Contributions to Structural Engineering History in Northern California

Education and Career

Stephen (Steve) Earle Johnston received his undergraduate degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Southern California (USC) in 1943 while enrolled in the Navy V12 officer’s commission development program. His structural engineering career began after graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with a Master’s degree in 1948 when he began work as a field engineer in Portland with the U.S. Naval Construction Battalions “Seabees”. In 1951, his work became focused on structural engineering with the Architecture and Engineering firm, AC Martin, in Los Angeles, where he worked for two and half years. He gained additional wood frame construction experience during just under two years of work at the firm of Daniel, Mann, Johnson & Mendenhall (DMJM). In 1955, he started the structural engineering group within Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) in San Francisco, where he worked until the fall of 1980. He then formed a partnership with John Rutigliano, S.E., for three years. After those three years, they merged their practice with Cygna Engineers where Steve stayed until his retirement in 1986.  

Notable building projects under his lead at the SOM San Francisco Structural Group include:

  • 14-story, John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company Building, 255 California St., San Francisco, CA.
  • 20-story, Crown Zellerbach Building, San Francisco
  • 34-story, Tennessee Gas (Tenneco) Building in Houston, TX
  • 36-story, Hartford Building (650 California St.), San Francisco 
  • 28-story, One Maritime Plaza (Golden Gateway Office Building), San Francisco
  • 23-story, 50 Beale St., (Bechtel Building), San Francisco
  • 35-story, Hyatt Union Square, San Francisco
  • 39-story, One Front St., (Shaklee Terraces), San Francisco
  • 35-story, 45 Fremont St., San Francisco (Bechtel Building)
  • 38-story, 425 Market St., San Francisco
  • 28-story, Ordway Building, Oakland
  • 33-story, 595 Market St., San Francisco
  • 25-story, Bank of Tokyo, San Francisco
  • 55-story, Crocker Center Tower I, Los Angeles
  • 47-story, Crocker Center Tower II, Los Angeles
  • 41-story, Crocker Bank Tower & Galleria, San Francisco
  • 12-story, Federal Reserve Bank Building, San Francisco


Development of Steel Moment Frames

In the 1960s and 1970s during Steve Johnston’s tenure at SOM in San Francisco, he was involved in the design of several buildings that influenced the development of steel moment frame construction and their connections. Typically, during this period, steel moment frames for tall buildings were comprised of “complete frame systems” where moment frame connections were used at almost every connection. The use of moment frame connections in Johnston’s work helped initiate a testing program with Professor Egor Popov to investigate the behavior of welded flange with bolted web connections.

Some buildings that Johnston contributed to include the following:

  •  34-story Tennessee Gas (Tenneco) Building in Houston, TX. This building utilized all welded flange and welded web steel moment frame connections and was completed in 1963
  • 36-story Hartford Building at 650 California St., SF. This building utilized all welded flange and web moment frame connections and was completed in 1964
  • 23-story 50 Beale St., SF (Bechtel) Building with steel moment frames, completed in 1967
  • 35-story Hyatt Hotel building in Union Square, SF. This building utilized welded flange with bolted web connections moment frames and was completed in 1972. 


Applied Technology Council (ATC)

The Applied Technology Council (ATC) was founded through the efforts of the Structural Engineers Association of California (SEAOC). In 1970-71, an ad hoc committee of SEAOC appointed a three-person committee – Roland Sharpe, John Wiggins and Steve Johnston to advise on setting up a separate organization to speed up the implementation of research. In 1973, ATC was incorporated for that purpose. These founding members of ATC envisioned that the organization would be able to obtain funding from NSF and/or other governmental agencies, which would enable ATC to expedite the SEAOC committee process of turning the results of research into something useful for the practice of engineering in the form of the building code, design guidelines and standards.  

Today, ATC is a nonprofit research organization focused on the effects of natural hazards on the built environment and how to mitigate these effects, particularly earthquakes. ATC effectively 1) fosters the development of applied research in the practice of structural engineering, 2) provides alternative sources of funding for research, and 3) develops and publishes standards to aid the practice of structural engineering.  

At the ATC at 50 celebratory events held in San Francisco on December 7th, 2023, the three members were given recognition for this important accomplishment and contribution to the practice of structural engineering.

ATC-3 Committee

In 1973, Johnston actively participated in the early development of the Applied Technology Council ATC-3 “Tentative Provisions for the Development of Seismic Regulations for Buildings”.  He initially served as the chairman of the executive committee, with eight to nine committees involved in the effort.  The ATC-3 project was a significant contribution in providing a rational standard for the application of simplified methods to the principles of earthquake engineering, ground motions and dynamic analysis of structures.  The ATC-3 Tentative Provisions were later published in June 1978 and amended in 1982 under ATC-3-06.  This work significantly changed how we performed seismic design at the time and remains the basis for how we design for seismic effects today.

Work Ethic Philosophy:

In a 2001 interview with Chris Poland and Jim Malley, Steve Johnston relayed the following in his initial response to the question, “Why don’t you run us through your work history?”

Johnston: “When I was in high school, the local Rotary club had a program called the Dutch Uncle Club, in which candidates or graduates from high school were interviewed by members of the Rotary, and given advice as to what degree and what courses they should follow. I think that was probably the most important interview I ever had. I met an engineer by the name of Don Kroeker, who was a mechanical engineer. He hired me. Don had a credo that I think is worth mentioning. He had three items which were prioritized this way:

  • Do the best job you know how for your client. Regardless of what monies are available, just do the best job you know how.
  • Try to make enough money to keep yourself and your family out of the poor house.
  • Try to leave the profession in a better position than it was in when you entered.

So that was a guiding philosophy for me.”


  1. Structural Engineer to Structural Engineer:  Conversation with Steve Johnston, Interview by Chris D. Poland and James O. Malley, The Structural Design of Tall Buildings v.10, 1-7 (2001). Copyright © 2001 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
  2. Connections: The EERI Oral History Series, Roland L. Sharpe – Stanley Scott, Interviewer, Earthquake Engineering Research Institute, 2021.


Awards & Accomplishments
  • SEAONC President (1977)
  • SEAOC College of Fellows (1998)
  • SEAONC Honorary Member (1999)
Related Engineer(s)
Related Organization(s)
Related Structure(s)
  • Crown Zellerbach Building
  • John Hancock Company Building
  • Hartford Building
  • One Maritime Plaza
  • Bechtel Building
  • Hyatt Union Square
  • Ordway Building
  • Bank of Tokyo
  • Crocker Center Towers
  • Federal Reserve Bank Building, San Francisco