MOUNTAIN VIEW -- When I heard that a developer was ready to raze the birthplace of Silicon Valley, my first thought was to chain myself to the old Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory and hope that the bulldozer would spare me and the building rather than obliterate a piece of the past.
My second thought was, is the sagging one-story building at 391 San Antonio Road worth saving? The 60-year-old structure has morphed from fruit drying shed to semiconductor lab to furniture store to fruit stand to halal grocery. Like an old actor, it's had work done -- front, back, inside and out. The famous Traitorous Eight, who worked there with Nobel laureate William Shockley in the 1950s, wouldn't recognize the place today.
And developer Merlone Geier Partners already owns it, having just paid north of $4 million for it as part of a half-billion dollar office, retail and residential development years in the making. Seems the time to save the building would have been before the sale.
But it's one of the oldest stories going: Progress and profit steamrolling a bit of history. And so plenty of people are agitating for something to be done. A retired Palo Alto patent attorney is on a crusade to get the developer to give the building to a nonprofit that would run it as a museum. Former Shockley employees and a representative of an electrical engineers' group are talking with Merlone Geier about a suitable way to mark the historic spot.
This is probably a good place to recite a little of that history: The former fruit shed on San Antonio Road is the spot where Shockley hired an all-star team of electronics geniuses, including Intel (INTC) co-founders Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore. It's where they and others first unleashed silicon in their effort to build the semiconductor that built the valley and the digital world we live in. It's where eight of the all-stars turned on their difficult boss and took their fascination with silicon as a semiconductor down the road to start Fairchild Semiconductor. They became known as the Traitorous Eight and Fairchild ended up all-but spawning the chip industry. Plaques outside the now-vacant grocery on San Antonio Road acknowledge Shockley labs' place in history, but nothing about the building would tip you off to it.
For all that, the building holds a special, almost sacred, place in the hearts of those who know the semiconductor industry best. "The building clearly has probably the most historic merit of anything in the valley, in terms of the semiconductor industry," says David Laws, a founder of the Semiconductor Special Interest Group at the Computer History Museum.
And sure, he'd like the building to stay, but he recognizes it is hardly a thing of beauty.
The best news in all this? Even Merlone Geier is agitating for something to be done. They don't want to save the building, but they want to do something -- something bold -- to acknowledge the site's place in history.
"We're going to have something pretty neat out there," Merlone Geier vice president Mike Grehl says, adding that Silicon Valley tourists will seek it out on self-guided tours of high-tech hot spots. "I think it will be one of the stops."
Grehl strikes me as a guy who really does appreciate the Shockley building's place in history. He rattled off the narrative of the Traitorous Eight when we spoke; and he'd clearly taken the time to find out why the Shockley building is so revered by those who were there and those who know its story.
"I've actually learned more about the history of the silicon transistor than I ever thought I would," he says.
Grehl says construction is many months away and that talks with those who care about the building are just starting. But, he says, the company is thinking about erecting a monument of some sort at the building site and installing an educational exhibit elsewhere in the development that tells the story of what went on at 391 San Antonio.
One of the former Shockley employees meeting with the developers is Jacques Beaudouin, who lobbied the city for 13 years before convincing it to place an historic plaque outside the old Shockley building. He says his heart wants to save the building, but his head wonders whether that makes sense. "We're more looking for something substantial to commemorate the birthplace of Silicon Valley," he says. "It is there that it started. There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it."
I might have just the idea -- bold and substantial. How about restoring the building's facade to the way it looked in the Shockley days and refurbishing several hundred square feet of the interior? Then the reworked shell of the refurbished building could be built into the new office building that will rise on the site. The facade could be used as an entryway, an entryway filled with replicas of the tools and transistors of Shockley's time.
Maybe my idea is a little more bold -- or a little less practical -- than what Grehl and company had in mind. But it's just one idea. You might have your own. Email them to me or send them to @mikecassidy on Twitter.
I'll share the interesting ones with you in a coming column.
Contact Mike Cassidy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 408-920-5536. Follow him at Twitter.com/mikecassidy.