A 1940s Googleplex: An Excerpt From "The Company Town"

A rendering of Bell Labs' pathbreaking corporate campus near Summit, New Jersey. The Googleplex of its day, the Bell facility opened in 1944.

Everyone nowadays seems to have heard about  Google’s spectacular California campus and headquarters, the Googleplex. News reports profiling the Google home base  are everywhere, including a recent one on CNBC that showed its nap rooms, exotic free food, and numerous distractions (foosball, volleyball, croquet etc.), which the report said made the place seem “like a playground on steroids.” But the Googleplex is only the most celebrated of corporate campuses, which have been around since the 1930s and ’40s, as this excerpt from The Company Town describes:

In the 1930s, the Bell Labs division of American Telephone & Telegraph began planning for a new Manhattan headquarters. The high-rise would cover four acres of prime New York real estate and house 5,600 of the research-and-development division’s scientists and staffers. But by 1939, the plan had been discarded: Manhattan, it seems, was already plagued by “high living costs” and “urban noise and dirt.” Staffers were said to be repelled by the hassles and costs associated with commuting. So instead, in 1944, Bell Labs relocated to a park-like campus on 250 acres near Summit, New Jersey, 25 miles out from the city. Apparently, Bell Labs Chairman Dr. Frank B. Jewett had for years longed for more leafy surroundings.

Images of the New Jersey site show a complex of unthreatening, modern structures amid landscaped countryside. Indoors, a cafeteria, solarium, and employees’ lounge celebrate modernist aesthetics with “butternut woodwork,” recessed lighting, and unfussy, upholstered furniture. Modular construction allows reconfiguration of laboratory spaces according to the needs of the moment.

Bell Labs was in the vanguard of the industrial-park and office-park movement that would not truly pick up speed until the 1960s, by which point the U.S. economy had begun an inexorable shift away from manufacturing and toward services and knowledge work. Up until these years, the company town had been the primary venue for business civic experimentation. Some of these towns—including Lowell, Massachusetts; early Pullman, Illinois; Hershey, Pennsylvania; Kohler, Wisconsin; Vandergrift, Pennsylvania; and such timber towns as Scotia, California and Port Gamble, Washington—had been model, planned communities. Offering comfortable worker housing, handsome public buildings, landscaped vistas, parks, libraries, schools, hospitals, and other amenities, such places were capitalism’s utopias—showplaces for individual companies and evidence that the system was capable of generating urban areas where, in Milton Hershey’s words, there would be “no poverty, no nuisances, no evil.”

But by the 1930s, the automobile seemed to threaten the very existence of company towns. By contrast, office and industrial parks were utopias built for the automobile age.

The first such parks—around New York, Chicago, and Kansas City—dated back to the turn of the century, but by 1940 there were fewer than 35 such developments. By the early 1970s, however, there were over 300 such industrial/office parks in California alone, and a large number in Florida, Georgia, Minnesota, Missouri, Texas, and Wisconsin.

Office-park path-breakers included IBM and PepsiCo. In 1957, the computer company commissioned Finnish-born Eero Saarinen—an architect on his way to developing a world-class reputation in part due to his many company campuses—to design a scientific research center in Yorktown Heights, New York. The three-story, 770,000-square-foot building there would house 1,500 scientists in a fieldstone-and-glass structure that set a new standard for suburban offices. IBM was so pleased with the Yorktown facility that it decided to move its corporate headquarters out of Manhattan to Armonk, New York. Architects Skidmore, Owings & Merrill drew up plans for a 403,000-square-foot glass-and-concrete edifice there, complete with two sculpture-filled courtyards on 420 acres. At the same time, Skidmore, Owings’ created Connecticut campuses for Connecticut General Life and Emhart Manufacturing Co. Saarinen designed a further complex for Bell Labs, at Holmdel, N.J., which opened in 1962.

PepsiCo followed IBM’s lead, moving northward out of New York City. In 1958, the soft-drink giant purchased a former polo club in Purchase, New York, and hired architect Edward Durell Stone to plan a prestigious headquarters complex. That would consist of seven, seemingly overlapping, three-story buildings on 112 acres. Native and exotic trees and grasses were as carefully chosen as the fifty celebrated works of sculpture by the likes of Alexander Calder, Henry Moore, and Isamu Noguchi.

Outside of the New York area, the flight from urban centers was perhaps even more pronounced. In the 1960s, over 30 industrial parks representing 700 high-tech companies—Digital, General Electric, RCA, and Raytheon included—emerged along Route 128 near Boston. The Great Southwest Industrial Park, opened in 1967 on the outskirts of Atlanta, seems like a paradigm of the modern corporate campus. After passing through a 90-foot-high abstract entry arch, employees and visitors traveled along wide, divided boulevards bearing such collegiate names as Bucknell and Colgate. Trees and shrubbery shared quadrangle space with modernist sculpture. Buildings housed regional distribution centers for Coca-Cola, Goodyear, Philco-Ford, and Stanley Home Products. Not far away, the Atlanta Executive Park, which opened in 1964, housed administrative rather than industrial activity. There, a central plaza, the Pantry in the Park, supplied office workers with a snack bar, a copy service, and a gift shop.

Examining the emergence of corporate campuses and the exodus from New York City, urban sociologist William H. Whyte in 1988 noted that the new complexes had “little connection with their surroundings.” He went on,

They are elements of a car culture….Within the headquarters a range of services makes the outside unnecessary. These are particularly bountiful in outlying campuses. At Beneficial Management’s corporate village in Peapack, New Jersey, a pleasant grouping of low buildings is arranged around a courtyard and bell tower. There are outdoors dining areas, dining rooms within, shops, health facilities; the garage is laid out so that one drives to an underground space and takes an elevator to within a few feet of his office.

An unabashed fan of the urban experience, Whyte concluded that corporate campuses were employee-unfriendly developments—isolated, accessible only via increasingly congested roadways, often both Pharonic and sprawling, with little functional use of vast open space and too few pathways for those who might simply like to take a walk. Some were fortress-like as if intended to discourage visitors, he said. Most unforgivably, he found all of them inhospitable to the “unplanned, informal encounters” among people upon which both markets and spontaneous creativity depend. Ever hopeful, though, Whyte observed that the time-tested “idea of towns is gaining currency” as the campuses were found wanting. He seemed to forecast a return to sensible, small-community living and working.

Corporate campuses have continued to sprout, but company towns are hardly things of the past: Hershey, Scotia, Corning, New York, auto-production towns across Middle America, Midwestern meatpacking towns, and even the Atomic City of Oak Ridge are still in business. Moreover, rather than supplanting company towns, corporate campuses reproduce much of company-town life, albeit with a post-industrial, white-collar twist, in places ranging from Federal Express’ 500,000-square-foot Collierville, Tennessee, campus to the Mountain View, California site of the Googleplex. The FedEx facility is home to 1,500 employees and features jogging trails, a library, a wellness center, and coffee bars on each floor of the four office buildings. Google famously offers its cosseted workers free gourmet meals (Indian or Latin American, if you like), exercise facilities, and massages. Need to get your pants dry cleaned or your hair cut? There’s a service right there. There are even “sleep pods” where employees can take soporific-music-induced naps. All of this may sound idyllic, until you realize that workers need never go home—or stop working.

From the book The Company Town: The Industrial Edens and Satanic Mills That Shaped the American Economy, by Hardy Green.  Available from Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group.  Copyright © 2010.

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