750 Ridder Park Drive: Documenting the former headquarters of the Mercury News

Welcome to 750 Ridder Park Drive

The Mercury News is one of California’s oldest continuously published daily newspaper, as well as Santa Clara County’s oldest operating commercial business, beginning its life as the San Jose Weekly Visitor in 1851. When State lawmakers abandoned San Jose for Vallejo as California’s capital in 1851, its two pioneer papers in San Jose — the Argus and the State Journal — went broke. Led by John C. Emerson, three businessmen bought their equipment and opened the San Jose Weekly Visitor. Ten years later, it became the Mercury, named for the nearby New Almaden mercury mines, and the messenger of Roman mythology.

After several locations in downtown San Jose, the paper moved in 1967 to 750 Ridder Park Drive, just off the Nimitz Freeway (I-880), where it remained until the paper’s owner sold the property to Super Micro Computer, Inc. The 300 editorial, advertising and administration employees have once again returned to downtown, while the printing and production of 10 daily newspapers are now mostly done in Concord and Hayward.

This history, sponsored by Super Micro Computer, Inc., and created by History San José using artifacts and archival material from its collection, as well as interviews from the Mercury News, documents the 312,000-square foot production facility at Ridder Park Drive, and the paper’s history, as well as those reporters and production workers who saw the paper transition from printing presses to digital content.

History of 750 Ridder Park Drive

Moses Schallenberger

Long before 750 Ridder Park Drive was developed for the Mercury News headquarters, it was farmland belonging to Moses Schallenberger, one of the early pioneers of Santa Clara County. Schallenberg, born in Stark County, Ohio in 1826, made his journey overland in 1844 with the John Townsend family, who had taken him in after his parents’ death.

After working in Monterey in mercantile trades, and a short stint in the mines on the Yuba River, Schallenberger came to San Jose in 1850 to manage Dr. Townsend’s estate after his death. He married Fannie Everitt in 1854, a native of Alabama, and they moved to their homestead on the Coyote River two miles north of San Jose. According to Pen Pictures from the ‘Garden of the World,’ the Schallenbergers’ house was constructed at a cost of $13,000. The farm consisted of 115 acres of fertile land devoted to production of fruit and vegetables. Credited as an early orchardist in the Valley, Schallenberger devoted roughly ten acres to orchards by 1858.

Valley Growth Leads to Circulation Boom

Santa Clara Valley was a booming agricultural center for more than a century. Between 1950 and 1965, however, the Valley underwent a dramatic change. Driven by A. P. “Dutch” Hamann, San Jose’s city manager, and his campaign to bring the post-World War II boom to Santa Clara County, and particularly San Jose, the area was refashioned into a manufacturing and technology hub surrounded by suburbia. The San Jose Mercury and San Jose News (they would merge in 1983) was an influential advocate of the area’s sudden growth in population, as well as its beneficiary. As San Jose jumped in population from 95,000 in 1950 to 330,000 in 1965, the newspapers’ publisher, Joe Ridder, happily announced “We’re bursting at the seams here.”

Ridder was determined to move the newspapers out of their crowded location downtown — a former grocery store at 211 West Santa Clara Street — and selected 36 acres of the former Schallenberger farm, four miles north of downtown on the other side of what was then Highway 17. The new office building and production plant more than doubled the space of their downtown building. The Mercury News’ state-of-the art, air-conditioned new home was billed at the time as the world’s largest one-story newspaper plant. The 312,000 square foot main building held more than 1,000 employees, as well as Linotypes and typewriters.

The move of the newspaper (part of San Jose’s seeming limitless appetite for incorporation of far flung orchards) was not welcomed by all. It contributed — or at least reflected — the imminent demise of San Jose’s downtown area, already suffering as it competed for shoppers and other business with the growing number of suburban shopping centers. It also separated reporters and editors from the heart of the city. “One of the things the Mercury News lost when it moved in 1967 from its battered downtown building to its moat-enclosed palace off Nimitz Freeway was its endless stream of walk-in people,” wrote political reporter Harry Farrell in his 1983 book San Jose and Other Famous Places. In addition to city officials and the hubbub of local politics, Farrell missed the “tramps, loudmouthed lawyers, showbiz characters, muscle-bound jocks, panhandlers, fancy ladies, pugnacious politicians, evangelists, growers of 40-pound squashes, visionaries, inventors, cross-country joggers and bikers.”

The Architecture

The Modernist building was designed in 1965 by Warren B. Heid. After graduating with a degree in architecture from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1950, Heid began his career with the prestigious San Jose firm of Binder and Curtis, where he worked on Fire Station 1 in San Jose. By 1959, Heid had established his own firm in Saratoga. His portfolio includes the First National Bank and St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Saratoga, the First Valley National Bank in San Jose, and the City of Saratoga Council Chambers building. His design for the Mercury News plant was listed in the Top Ten National Industrial Plants of 1968 by Factory Magazine.

The Mercury News building reflected the trend throughout California for Modernist style in commercial architecture, with prefabricated concrete panels and a flat roof. Yet, while the structure was not particularly innovative, its design included two unique elements: an elaborate “loggia” or elliptical entrance and a massive bronze sculpture, hanging from the loggia ceiling.

The site was made up of a large production and office building, with ample parking and several small buildings, set back behind an extensive lawn. A concrete walkway, lined by trees led to the entrance, or loggia. Wide quartz steps led up to the raised 60 feet wide and 24 feet deep loggia. Metal railings and 28 columns, some 25 feet tall, lined the perimeter of the loggia. An illuminated pool to the east and west of the loggia also had fountains. The pool wrapped around the western corner of the building and ran the length of the majority of the western elevation.

After groundbreaking in September 1965, the final permit application (filed in July 1966) included an estimated construction value of $3.4 million. The building was dedicated in two days of ceremonies, April 8-9, 1967. Over the ensuing two decades, alterations have increased the size of the building from 185,000 square feet (with roughly 30,000 square feet devoted to mezzanine space) to some 312,000 square feet. This has included additions for production and printing, as well as loading docks. The last addition was completed in 1989.

Contractor Carl N. Swenson

General contractor Carl N. Swenson completed the construction of the initial building as well as many of the additions and upgrades. Swenson arrived in the United States from Sweden in 1902 to work on construction of railroads in the Midwest. By 1911, he moved to California and began constructing homes, civic buildings and farm structures. By 1928, he had completed the eleven-story Medico-Dental building in San Jose.

When it closed in 1986, the Carl N. Swenson Company was called one of Santa Clara County’s oldest, largest and most powerful construction companies. According to the San Jose Mercury News, “probably every resident in the San Jose area has at one time or another been in a building that Swenson and his company constructed.” He remained president of the company until 1956 when his son Clifford took over. Swenson died in 1974. His grandson Barry established Barry Swenson Builder around 1984, which still operates today.

Evolving Business

During the nearly fifty years that the Mercury News operated at the Ridder Park Drive site, the newspaper business went through many changes across the country. Soon after moving, the newspaper switched from the “hot lead” of Linotype machines to computer-generated “cold type,” which is photographically transferred to printing plates. From circulation of a purely paper edition, it moved to digital production as well as digital content, and the online advertising to support it. The business has also undergone significant changes in ownership, intent, and financial organization. As a result, the newspapers’ owners have re-evaluated space needs and property investment.

In October, 2014, Digital First Media, current owner of the San Jose Mercury and its parent, the Bay Area News Group, sold the Ridder Park Drive campus to Super Micro Computer, Inc., as part of the company’s plan to reduce “legacy infrastructure cost” across its newspaper holdings. “Our current campus is simply too large and too expensive to operate for our current business operation,” said publisher Mac Tully.

“We do not define ourselves by the building we work in,” Tully added, “but by the community we serve and that is not changing and will not change.”

Mac Tully

The paper finalized a new lease at 4 North 2nd Street, marking its return to a revitalized downtown.

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