The Hidden Fortress

General Atomics Campus Aerial Photograph 1967

In an earlier post I talked about my time working at a company called MP3.com and how it inspired the writing of my first Rolly Waters mystery, Black’s Beach Shuffle. One of the early chapters is titled The Hidden Fortress and describes Rolly’s first visit to the offices of a mysterious internet startup.

Just before they reached Torrey Pines Road, Fender took a right on Atomic Way (named in a time when another technology pushed at the edge of the world’s problems, scaring people to death). Rolly followed. They pulled up to a long metal gate.

I used to drive in here every morning. How could I not put this in a mystery novel?

Although I changed the name of the street, this was basically a description of the last leg of my morning commute when I first started working at MP3.com. In its earliest days the company rented office space at the General Atomics campus, one of the most architecturally distinctive and historically significant buildings in post-WWII San Diego. The building was completed in 1959 and, along with the arrival of the UCSD campus nearby, it signaled the beginning of San Diego’s future as a center of high-tech research and development.

General Atomics campus 1967. Source: City of San Diego Archives

The atomic age has now given way to the biotech era. Torrey Pines Mesa is choked with sleek and imposing buildings bearing the names Pfizer, Novartis, Oranogenesis, Agilent and others. The GA building with its distinctive nucleus-and-electrons themed design is barely visible, but it used to be a regular and remarkable sight when driving through the area. There was little else there and the building stood out as a propitious glimpse of our bright atomic future.

Construction pad for the GA campus, circa 1958, looking across Torrey Pines Mesa to the Pacific Ocean
Source: San Diego History Center

Designed by the architectural firm of Pereira & Luckman, the building reflects the remarkable confluence of architectural modernism and the burgeoning aerospace industry coming together in San Diego in the 1950s and 60s. As partners, Pereira & Luckman also designed the Convair Astronautics campus and General Dynamics headquarters in San Diego, as well as the Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport. Separately they were responsible for such projects as the UCSD Central Library, Madison Square Garden and the Los Angeles Zoo.

Possible dedication ceremony? Circa 1960. The speaker is standing on roof of the “electron” ring structure facing back towards the “nucleus” building. Source: San Diego History Center

I never got to work in the “atomic” building as the MP3.com offices were confined to a drab and crowded outer building added sometime later. But it was fun to see this landmark a little closer up when I arrived each day. And sad that it’s so hidden from sight today. If you’re in San Diego, you can catch a glimpse out the right side of your car by turning off Highway 5 onto Genesee West as you head up towards Torrey Pines Road.

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