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Membership - Featured Member

Honoring an AIA Pasadena and Foothill long time member:


Harold J. Bissner, Jr. - Architect, Recipient of the 2018 Joseph F. Thomas Founder’s Award

Everyone loves ice cream!  Especially when there are 31 flavors to choose from!

This year’s honoree has a lot to do with how easy and ubiquitous ice cream has become for all of us.  …More on that later….

Born in 1925 and coming of age during the darkest years of the Depression, Harold J. Bissner Junior endured hardships that today are unimaginable and long forgotten, except by those his age who are still living and who experienced it.  He never attended a formal school of architecture, nor college, nor even finished high school! Yet, self-taught and through an ability to “think outside the box”, he became a highly talented architect whose beautiful works would be the envy of all of us. 

Born quite literally on the family dining table here in Pasadena, - his father rushed out to locate the family doctor, only to discover he was drunk – his mother delivered him into the hands of his grandmother. Quite an auspicious beginning!  

Harold tells of the difficult days during the Depression when he needed to insert cardboard into the holes worn in his soles. He attended Pasadena schools and learned early on that he loved to draw and was good at it.   Yet he said he never wanted to be an architect. 

No surprise!  After observing his architect-father, Harold J. Bissner, Sr. at home waiting in vain for commissions that never came and his mother becoming the breadwinner, architecture held little luster for a boy his age.  And the stress on their marriage resulted in divorce, further compounding their difficulties. Harold Sr. did manage to find work in the years just before WWII. Harold Jr. tells of how his father kept a bedroll under his office’s drafting table because he couldn’t afford rent on an apartment. But it established a practice that was to pay off later.

Pearl Harbor changed everything! 

Father and son signed up together shortly after Roosevelt and Congress declared War.  In fact both made headlines in the local Star News – Harold Sr. in the Marine Corps, and Harold Jr. in the Navy. 

Already an architect, Harold Sr. was commissioned and sent to Quantico, Virginia for training.  He was deployed to the South Pacific and placed in charge of operations at Henderson Field during the Battle of Guadalcanal, the first major US offensive.

Harold Jr., not yet 17 and only in his junior year of high school when he signed (he lied about his age), became an enlisted man and after basic training was transferred to the USS Buchanan, DD 484, a destroyer ironically deployed to protect the landings at Guadalcanal. Father and son may have been in sight of one another while battling a seemingly invincible enemy in this remote corner of the world.  

The Guadalcanal Campaign and the Battle of the Coral Sea turned the tide of war.  USS Buchanan became one of our most decorated ships by surviving to fight in nearly all the major naval campaigns, culminating with Iwo Jima and Okinawa.  Her last act was to deliver General McArthur to the USS Missouri for the Unconditional Surrender in Tokyo Bay. 

Harold Jr. witnessed all this and worked himself up the ranks to Yeoman First Class, an amazing feat offering foresight into his future. He was a member of Buchanan’s only crew from commissioning in 1942 –through- decommissioning in 1946 when he accompanied her to South Carolina and mustered out of the Navy. The Navy changed his life! 

Father and son were reunited!  And although Harold Jr. qualified for the GI Bill and could have gone to formal architecture school (he had passed his high school GED in the Navy with an unheard-of perfect score), he elected instead to learn the profession through his father. And fortunately the post WWII boom brought an abundance of work.  They did mainly housing, single family and apartments, literally hundreds of them until the empty land in our area ran out. Harold Jr. pursued modernism while Harold Sr. embraced a more traditional approach.  They parted ways professionally in 1951, but remained close. Harold Sr., like Joe Thomas, was one of our chapter’s charter members.

Harold Jr. brought in John E. Nyberg, AIA as a partner in 1953, a relationship that would last more than 30 years until Nyberg joined his own son in Newport Beach. Unique about Nyberg was he held joint licenses as an architect and a structural engineer.  He was considered by many in our field, a genius!  He passed away in 2001. A third partner, Jim Burns, Architect joined the firm in 1959 forming the firm’s final iteration: Bissner, Nyberg & Burns. This merger of talents greatly enhanced the versatility of the firm in pursuing new directions and unorthodox projects.

Harold made an early acquaintance of Lawrence L. Frank, co-owner of Tam O’Shanter, Lowry’s, Five Crowns, and the Van De Kamps chains.  This would prove to be an important diversification. Harold remembers “LL” affectionately as “the genius behind the operation - who loved riding in my car” (a T Bird).   Bissner & Nyberg became architects for the Frank/Van De Kamp family businesses after Cal Straub departed California to become dean of the Arizona State University School of Architecture. 

It was 1967 when Harold developed his iconic “Dutch bonnet” folded plate/windmill prototype for Van De Kamps Holland Dutch Bakery coffee shops throughout the region, 13 in all! The prototype and last survivor remains in Arcadia and Harold was recently honored by Arcadia officials and an article in the Star News dated June 30, 2016.

A one-of-a-kind client, Vard Wallace, walked in their doors seeking an architect for a unique commission: The Volcano House!  Perched atop an extinct cinder cone in Newberry Springs alongside US 66 (I-40) east of Barstow, this 1968 circular hideaway with 360º views is almost invisible, except to the trained eye.  It was virtually unknown until given notoriety by the late Huell Howser who featured it on his PBS travel show “California’s Gold” and then purchased it. Since then it has been conveyed to a charitable foundation and recently published in an Italian architectural magazine.   

Perhaps his greatest breakthrough was Baskin-Robbins.  They were on the cusp of developing a range of ice cream flavors previously unheard of that was gaining international appeal.  Harold was there at the beginning helping them develop their production lines to blend and freeze the product for shipping to local ice cream parlors.  Harold designed all their plants (not the parlors) in the US, Japan, Korea, Mexico, and parts of Europe. 31 Flavors brought gourmet ice cream to us all! And it was during that period that he married his second wife, Lela, in the US Embassy in Tokyo.  They have been married 42 years.

Harold married his long time sweetheart, Lucille, right out of the war in 1946.  She has since passed away. They have four grown children, Carol Ann, Suzanne, Theresa, and Harold III.  None carried on in architecture: one is an executive with a professional search firm, another a horse and dog trainer, a third a horse breeder and landowner, and fourth a construction forensics expert.  They grew up in the first family home in Altadena that Harold designed.  

Harold and Lela now reside in the second home he designed:  A many-level ridge top home in South Pasadena with “to die for views”, Harold enjoys every day that his long life has given him there (he is 93).  And the views from his house have certainly not shortened his lifespan, nor his creative spirit! In fact, the multiple stairs help keep him fit.  

As a designer, Harold never personally sought awards in the various AIA chapter design competitions. However his partner, an AIA member, did and won the firm awards. And the firm on the whole “spawned” many other firms, providing a “ripple effect” throughout our profession. 

Bissner & Nyberg is one of our iconic predecessor firms.

by: James G. Spencer, FAIA


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