Back To Borregas Ave: Finding Atari’s Lost World Headquarters
[easy-share buttons=”facebook,twitter,google,pinterest,digg,stumbleupon,tumblr,mail,reddit,buffer” counters=0 native=”no”]
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 the Kingdom of Atari. Moffett Park was one of Silicon Valley’s most important business parks during the ’70s 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 imaginative new companies like Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre, and of course, Atari. To a kid like me, 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 Gene Landrum, Ph.D. whom I was traveling with. I had flown out with Gene on the red eye. We sat in first class drinking merlot, Fiji water, and purple drank while playing California Games on Atari Lynx. Gene was my partner on a VR project I created to put virtual reality, augmented reality, and “innovative leisure” into a small pocket-sized product that you could take anywhere.
Gene Landrum is the closest person I’ve met to “The Most Interesting Man in the World“. Landrum lived the life of an adventurist, and his background was formidable, having launched the Atari 2600 VCS, Chuck E. Cheese, the first $9.99 handheld calculators and the first solar powered garden lights, only then to become a published author and lecturer.
My VR project was rooted in the same creative thread that ran through Bushnell and Landrum with Atari and Chuck E. Cheese, and “not forgetting where you came from” was an important part of my creative process. I took every opportunity to visit old Atari locations and work with former Atari employees. Marinating my project in this creative legacy of Atari and Chuck E. Cheese helped plot my course.
Before walking over to what had once been Atari World Headquarters, we walked around the building which originally served as headquarters for Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre, which began life as a project at Atari. It hit me just how mundane these offices were.
They weren’t exactly “run-down” given their age, but they weren’t what I had always imagined them to be either. I had grown up reading the Atari Force DC Comics which 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 Willy Wonka and the kids from Stranger Things designed an office building.
The reality was something much more normal. It was staid and corporate. From the outside, Atari looked like the sort of place where one of your dad’s friends might work. You look at these offices and think “Hey Bob, hey Stan, how’s the go goin?” Nice digs spread across a few square miles of Silicon Valley office parks. You’d never suspect they once housed a co-ed spa.
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 the biggest and the baddest – 1265 Borregas Ave., a large two-story complex that was home to Atari (late 1970s through July, 1984) in the booming years of the Atari 2600 and 80% marketshare.
It was during this era that the 2600 achieved insurmountable popularity and launched Atari into the cultural stratosphere, becoming a household name akin to Nike and Coca-Cola. Meanwhile, the Atari 8-bit computers were a top seller and the Atari 5200 had come, gone, and was being replaced by the Atari 7800 ProSystem, the new Atari console 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 make appearances, meet employees and take tours of Atari, and James Morgan worked in this building when he took the reigns from Ray Kassar.
So many hopes and dreams of children across the country had been orchestrated from within these four walls – as had (inadvertently) the origins of the 1983 collapse of the video game industry.
After walking around Moffett Park a bit, I met up with Regan Cheng to walk the 1265 campus. As we walked toward the building, which served as Atari’s sprawling World Headquarters until Summer 1984, Regan Cheng told stories of 1265 Borregas Ave.’s famous “grand staircase”. It made an impression on people first walking through Atari’s front doors. The staircase wrapped down the inside of the foyer inside the entrance to the building, out to the loop where Ray Kassar would arrive in a chauffeur-driven limousine that he would take in from his home in San Francisco every morning, about an hour away.
Regan Cheng had been one of Atari’s star product designers who penned the iconic Atari “wedge” look with Roy Nishi. Regan Cheng had designed the Atari 5200 and the Atari 1200 XL, giving both products a “nasty” look with angular lines, partially inspired by the products of Bang & Olufsen, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the futurist designs of Syd Mead which had recently graced the silver screen in Blade Runner.
We continued our walk around the first building. Regan reminisced fondly about all the good times had there, and talked about the time that Michael Jackson once showed to “see where video games were made” like that was just another day working at Atari. Regan also talked about how the front of 1265’s parking lot was absolutely littered with Porsches, Mercedes, BMWs, and Gene Landrum’s DeLorean. This was because, as Regan put it, 1265 Borregas Ave. was filled with Atari’s top brass and was “where all the money was going.”
“I wasn’t thinking that something was really messed up until late ’83. I was starting to see enough signs in the company that things were starting to unravel. This is slipping away. The train is derailing, it’s not going to keep riding, and what am I going to do next?”
– Howard Scott Warshaw, Atari Game Designer
Today the building has been split in half, dividing the old Atari World Headquarters into two symmetric sides which today house two different companies. The grand staircase that had been a hallmark of visiting Atari Headquarters is gone, and the exterior of the building has been repainted different colors. The Atari employee game room and gift shop is as extinct as the staircase, but the shell of the building is still there, and it was an experience to walk around hallowed ground listening to Atari stories from somebody who was there to live them.
We left the 1265 building and proceeded to walk about 1,000 feet down the road to 1196 Borregas Ave., the second of the two Atari World Headquarters located on that street. For me this truly felt like holy ground.
1196 Borregas Ave. served as Atari’s World Headquarters after Jack Tramiel bought the Home Consumer Division of Atari (home video games and computers) from parent company Warner Communications, and downsized operations. 1196 Borregas Ave. continued as Atari’s headquarters from July, 1984 until Tramiel’s reverse merger with JTS in 1996.
This building is the smaller of the two Atari World Headquarters, and when it was first constructed during the Warner Communications years it was never intended to become a headquarters for Atari’s operations. Before the Tramiel takeover, 1196 Borregas Ave. originally housed Atari’s Research & Development department under Warner, along with 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 1196 Borregas Ave. into Atari’s new headquarters. Most every Atari product produced from this point on had “1196 Borregas Ave. Sunnyvale, CA” listed as Atari’s address on the back of the box for most every Atari product.
The 1196 building was vacant on the day we arrived. Little remained of Atari’s presence. It would strain credulity to say there was anything obvious about this building as Atari’s former headquarters, other than the dated design aesthetic which seemed frozen in 1984.
One of the things you can still see when touring the former Atari complex is the Atari “Fuji” logo influence in the architecture of the buildings. Angled pillars swoop up the sides of buildings in ways that intentionally evoke Atari’s famous logo. You can still make out where the silver “Atari” lettering had once been on the front of the building. 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 counterclockwise around back we saw a small outdoor commons plaza which served as a relaxing hangout for Atari’s employees during lunch. It’s likely employees came out here to smoke and take a break from the Tramiel work environment. This “Atari back yard” was cool to see, but not quite the larger Atari commons area down the street which at one time housed Atari’s co-ed spa.
We also stumbled into a little surprise, a visual non-sequitur that only momentarily felt out of place. Planted in a hole in the middle of the back parking lot stands an old Basketball hoop, once used by Atari employees during breaks. Back around the front of the building near the entrance are creepy concrete pillars that rise a few feet out of the ground. These are the remnants of what had once been a corporate “Atari” sign greeting guests upon arrival.
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 hit me that all those bottles of Fiji water and purple drank I had that morning in the airport back on the east coast were now saturating themselves into the soil of Atari history.
The building sat there like a vacant castle, empty and imposing. Cool air spat from the cracks between the doors and smelled like old paper in an old school. The windows were dirty with film and the entire building could’ve used a good power washing. I tossed an Atari Lynx game card (I think it was California Games, the pack-in game that came with the Lynx) up onto the 2nd floor balcony as a bit of a time capsule.
I threw it up there to leave something of myself behind. Something small that would act as a reminder – to whatever faceless corporate entity seized this castle next – that something truly great once existed here. Great things were made here. Great people worked here. Great ideas flowed through these hallways. Whoever it was that was coming next needed to be placed on notice. Maybe throwing that game up on the balcony was more of the completion of a pilgrimage, like slipping a note into the Western Wall. Part of me hopes it’s still sitting there right now. Regan saw none of this, of course, but I was able to go home knowing I had left something behind.
The experience of walking around the Atari buildings was surreal. It felt, quite literally, like a dead theme park. I’ve been to EPCOT Center during the time that Horizons was shut down and left nearly abandoned by Disney. Maybe it was the oblique angled windows of Atari’s World Headquarters that made me think of the Horizons building that once gave us a glimpse into the future that we never got to live in. But being there put that same chill up my spine.
Horizons in the late 1990s was a physical manifestation of the hopes and dreams we had as children, unfulfilled and fading away. A deeply haunting feeling came over me. Being at Atari reminded me very much of being at an abandoned EPCOT attraction, and while modern companies and tech start-ups breathe new life into old offices, all I could see is the dreamland where something tragic and unexpected happened, that once was hard at work building a future that never came. (Note: Most of this website was created while sitting in modern day Epcot, steps from where Horizons used to be)
Those of you old enough to remember what a phone booth is, think of 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, like Kmart, the phone booth is obsolete and the world around it has moved on. These are broken pieces of a fallen once-mighty empire. And if you squint hard enough 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 sonnet 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. Today Moffett Park remains one of the more notable corporate real estate parks in Silicon Valley, as much or more so than when Atari ran the block. Some of the former Atari buildings have undergone incredible renovations to entice new tenants. What was old is new again, but it’s hard not to look up and only see what came before.
The 68,987 square foot former Atari World Headquarters at 1265 Borregas Ave. in Sunnyvale has been acquired by commercial real estate giant CBRE and has been extensively renovated. (See photo at top of page) 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 https://www.atari.io