Back To Borregas Ave : Finding Atari’s Lost World Headquarters
In Moffett Park, a partition of land in Sunnyvale, California carved out between Caribbean Drive and Highway 237, lay the remains of what was once home to boundless imagination, creativity and wonder. Once upon a time this was home to the most magical company on Earth. This was home to Atari.
Moffett Park was one of Silicon Valley’s fastest growing business parks during the 1970s and ‘80s. Streets sprawled out across the land, with memorable names like Caribbean, Java, Gibraltar, Bordeaux, and Borregas. Dozens upon dozens of inconspicuous office buildings rose up along these streets, each of them serving as homes to names like Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theater, and of course, Atari. Moffett Park was the center of the universe.
Chuck E. Cheese grew out of Atari and had its first offices housed in Moffett park on Bordeaux Drive. It had been the brainchild of Nolan Bushnell, Joe Keenan, and of course Gene Landrum, Ph.D. whom I was traveling with. Before walking over to what had once been Atari World Headquarters, we walked around the building which originally served as headquarters for another Atari project, Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre.
It hit me just how mundane these offices were. They weren’t dirty or run-down, particularly given their age, but they weren’t how I had always imagined them either. I had grown up reading the Atari Force DC Comics portrayed Atari World Headquarters as a monorailed complex, housed in a towering futuristic fortress made of lasers and childhood dreams. I had always envisioned Atari Headquarters to look like if a Bond villain had designed Disney World.
The reality was much more normal. It was staid and corporate. From the outside, Atari looked like the sort of place one of your dad’s friends might work. Nice digs spread across a few square miles of Silicon Valley office parks.
Atari owned a ton of real estate. During their peak years, Atari had multiple buildings spread across Moffett Park and Sunnyvale. It was Borregas Ave. though that was home to Atari’s most prestigious buildings, including not one but two former Atari World Headquarters.
The first of the two Atari World Headquarters on that street was 1265 Borregas Ave., a large two-story building that was the corporate home to Atari in the booming years (late ‘70s through July, 1984) during the incredible popularity of the Atari 2600. This was the era that the Atari 400 and Atari 800 were hot, the Atari XL computers were new, the Atari 5200 had come, gone, and was in the process of being replaced by the Atari 7800 – the new Atari system being readied to dominate what was then still a pre-Nintendo world.
1265 Borregas is the building that housed Atari when Ray Kassar was in charge, when he had an executive dining room in the building. Nolan Bushnell reported to work there before he left, celebrities like Michael Jackson and Steven Spielberg would show up, and James Morgan worked there when he ran things. The origins of the 1983 collapse of the video game industry was inadvertently orchestrated from within these four walls.
REGAN & SYD
After walking around Moffett Park a bit with Dr. Gene Landrum, I met up with Regan Cheng to walk the 1265 campus. As we approached the building, Regan Cheng reminded us that 1265 Borregas Ave. was famous for its grand staircase that wrapped down the inside of the foyer out to the loop, where Ray Kassar would arrive every morning from San Francisco in his chauffeur-driven limousine.
Regan Cheng had been one of Atari’s star product designers who penned the Atari “wedge” look with Roy Nishi. Regan Cheng had designed the Atari 5200 and the Atari 1200 XL, giving both products “nasty” angular lines, inspired partially by Bang & Olufsen, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the futurist designs of Syd Mead.
DIVIDED IN HALF
Regan reminisced about all the good times had there, and talked about the time that Michael Jackson once showed up at Atari to tour the building and see “where video games were made.” Regan also talked about how the front of 1265’s parking lot was absolutely littered with Porsches, Mercedes, BMWs, and Gene Landrum’s DeLorean as 1265 Borregas Ave. was “where all the money was going.”
Today the building has been divided in half, the grand staircase that had been a hallmark of walking into Atari is gone, and the exterior of the building has been repainted different colors. While the Atari employee game room is as extinct as the staircase, the shell of the building and its memories still exist, and even with that, it was an experience to walk around hallowed ground with great Atari alumni.
ON THE BORDER
We left the 1265 building and proceeded to walk about 1,000 feet down the street to 1196 Borregas Ave., the second of the two Atari World Headquarters that had been located on that street. For me this truly felt like holy ground.
1196 Borregas Ave. served as Atari’s Corporate Headquarters when Jack Tramiel bought the consumer portion of Atari (home games and computers) from parent company Warner Communications. This was Atari’s headquarters from July, 1984 until the reverse merger with JTS in 1996. When the building was first constructed during the Warner years, 1196 Borregas Ave. housed Atari’s Research & Development dept. and the Atari 400 800 XL team.
Once the sale of Atari to the Tramiels had been completed in the summer of 1984, Jack Tramiel consolidated Atari’s assets and turned this building into Atari’s new headquarters. Most every Atari product produced from this point on featured 1196 Borregas Ave. as the address printed on the back.
On the day we arrived the building was vacant. Little remained of Atari’s presence. It would strain credulity to say there was anything obvious about this building as Atari’s former headquarters. One of the things you can still see when touring the 1196 campus is the Atari “Fuji” logo influence in the architecture of the building itself. The signage is vacant where it had once said “Atari” in shiny silver text. The former Atari corporate reception desk still sits in the main entrance of the building, where a woman named Geraldine used to answer the phone.
Walking counter-clockwise around back we saw a small outdoor commons plaza which served as a relaxing hangout for Atari’s employees during lunch. This “Atari back yard” was cool, but not quite as cool as the larger Atari commons area down the street which at one time housed Atari’s spa.
We also stumbled into something which was a pleasant surprise and only momentarily felt out of place. Planted in a hole in the back parking lot sits an old Basketball hoop, still standing today and was once used by former Atari employees looking for a break. Back around front, sitting on the corner of the lot is an empty concrete shell which once held the entrance sign to Atari’s corporate facility.
Regan walked back to his Jeep for a moment, which was parked next to my rental car in the old Atari parking lot. Far from home and with nowhere to go, I walked along the edge of 1196 Borregas and took a piss against the side of the building to mark my territory. I had traveled all the way to California without stopping to eat or use the restroom. I stood there pud in hand laughing wildly as it occurred to me that all those bottles of water I drank on the east coast that morning were now entwined in Atari history.
I tossed an Atari Lynx game card up to the front balcony of that vacant castle. I meant it to be a bit of a time capsule. Part of me hopes its still sitting there. I threw it up there to leave something behind as a reminder to whatever faceless corporate entity who came next that something truly great once existed here. They needed to be placed on notice. Regan saw none of this, of course.
The experience of walking around these buildings was surreal. It felt like a dead theme park. While modern companies and tech start-ups breathe new life into old offices, all you see is what once was. Like an old phone booth sitting broken and unused in the parking lot of an abandoned K-Mart. The phone booth had once been a ubiquitous part of daily life that once housed Clark Kent in his transformation into Superman, now it’s obsolete and the world around it has moved on. These are broken pieces of a fallen once-mighty empire. If you squint you can still see it.
The buildings that made up Atari’s Moffett Park empire have a similar fate. They were once home to greatness and now sit quietly in a lost wonderland of Wonka-esq fun and joy that has now given way to the predictability of Silicon Valley corporate culture and real estate.
It feels like a dead end to a story that should have gone on indefinitely. I was standing in the collapsed ruins of a great video game empire. Like the two vast and trunkless legs of stone which stand in the desert of Percy Shelley’s “Ozymandias”, telling the story of a once-great King and his remnants which stand in ruin. “And on the pedestal these words appear: ‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’ Nothing beside remains. Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away.” To stand in the midst of the buildings and to remember what was is a personal journey that will stay with me always.
Look across the street though and you’ll see names like Google who have moved in and gentrified the neighborhood. Much of Moffett Park is now considered to be somewhat prestigious as far as corporate real estate in Silicon Valley goes. As much or more so than when Atari ran the block. Some of the former Atari buildings have undergone beautiful renovations in preparation of being rented. What was old is new again, but it’s hard not to look up and only see the old.
The 68,987 square foot former Atari World Headquarters at 1265 Borregas Ave. in Sunnyvale has been acquired by commercial real estate giant CBRE. It was sold by San Francisco-based Swift Real Estate Partners in May, 2016 for $24 million. Swift had purchased the building in August of 2013 for $12 million, or roughly $174 per square foot.
Justin is a Technology Entrepreneur, Futurist and Raconteur, and an avid Atari aficionado behind the creation of Atari I/O. He is also a contributing writer at The Retroist under the name Atari I/O. You can follow him at his website http://www.atari.io