By Julia Walker
The architecture of IBM has been enjoying a moment of high visibility. With attention trained on the preservation of Philip Johnson’s New York State Pavilion for the 1964 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, Queens has come a resurgence of interest in Eero Saarinen and Charles Eames’s neighboring IBM Pavilion, the multimedia “information machine” that seems in retrospect to have been 50 years ahead of its time. Alongside the ongoing popularity of this monument, explorations of the company’s aesthetic history, such as John Harwood’s recent book The Interface: IBM and the Transformation of Corporate Design, 1945-1976 and the interactive exhibition “Think,” held at Lincoln Center in honor of IBM’s centennial in 2011, have helped solidify IBM’s image of as an early adopter of digital spectacle. Yet before IBM became an information machine, it operated out of its modest first home, the site called simply “Plant No. 1” in Endicott, NY. It was in Endicott that Thomas J. Watson, Sr., the chairman and CEO of International Business Machines from 1914 to his death in 1956, attempted to define the architectural image of such a business, combining the hand labor of manufacturing with the intellectual work of engineering.
The life and death of IBM Endicott follows the contours of a now-familiar narrative typical of Rust Belt industries. The company was founded in 1911 as the Computer Tabulating Recording Company (CTR) and took up residency in Endicott, where the three companies that merged to form CTR had been based. Endicott already had the infrastructure of a company town since it had arisen as a base for the Endicott Johnson Shoe Company, a corporation so vast that job-seeking immigrants arriving at Ellis Island were apocryphally said to ask, “Which way, EJ?” For decades, the company was the largest manufacturer of shoes in the United States.
Photo (right): ITR (later IBM) factory, Endicott, NY, 1915. Photo courtesy of IBM Corporate Archives.
Photo (below): IBM Endicott, students training, 1924. Photo courtesy of IBM Corporate Archives.
Throughout its history, Endicott Johnson’s patriarch, George F. Johnson, maintained a proudly blue-collar image, a value mirrored in his company’s unpretentious vernacular architecture.1Located at the intersection of North and McKinley Streets in Endicott, the company’s plant sprawled south in acre after acre of red brick factory buildings. In contrast to this plainspoken home for EJ’s labor force, Thomas J. Watson, who became president of CTR in 1914, sought a more refined image for his company. Envisioning elegant salesmen in dark suits as the face of his company, in contrast to the grimy, physical work of the tanneries nearby, Watson’s factories were white, luminous structures in painted concrete and glass block. The first factory, begun in 1905, had been continuously augmented in the intervening years (and is now buried entirely within later additions); under Watson’s supervision, it expanded rapidly to encompass 65,000 square feet contained in orderly rows of geometric, modernist buildings. The structures combine the lightness, salubriousness, and efficiency of new materials and techniques with a quiet monumentality. The classical reposefulness of the buildings, with string courses and cornices articulating the division of the stories, is emphasized by ornament stamped into the concrete above each entrance depicting the ancient forbears of IBM’s technology: hourglasses, scales, and abaci. Watson’s factories mirror contemporary trends in European factory architecture that sought to ennoble and elevate the work of factory production (it is worth remembering that 1914 also saw the unveiling of Walter Gropius’s model factory at the Deutscher Werkbund exhibition in Cologne).
In 1933, Watson moved his research division to Endicott away from its previous home in New York City. To represent the addition of this group of white-collar workers to the existing working-class city, Watson’s new laboratory building was carried out in a federal revival style, a red brick block entered through a portico of neo-Egyptian columns and topped by a cupola. One of the first of its kind to be fully air-conditioned, the laboratory building contained elaborate wood paneling and marble decoration intended to dignify the work inside.2On the exterior, the ornament reflected Watson’s investment in the cerebral side of his company: IBM’s slogan—“Think”—was inscribed in the frieze and given the gravity of a classical dedication.
Over the next 30 years, Watson would continue to add to this ensemble of buildings, also overseeing the construction of a schoolhouse for employees (where they studied the latest engineering developments), a swimming pool, and a company cafeteria. Apart from the revivalist North Street Laboratory, while the architectural idiom of the campus did not remain consistent, it did remain consistently modern. Designed by the Connecticut firm of Sherwood, Mills & Smith, the cafeteria received coverage in Architectural Record and Architecture d’aujourd’hui, with the latter spread displaying the building next to IBM structures worldwide by Saarinen and Associates, Eliot Noyes, Marcel Breuer, and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.3Starkly angled to show the building’s closed, cubic form and highlighting the recessed strips of glass in the façade by rhyming them with streetlights and traffic lights, the photograph (and the accompanying article) position Endicott as a node in IBM’s international network, as modern and cosmopolitan as New York City or La Gaude, France.
Photo (right): IBM Endicott, aerial view, 1960. Photo courtesy of IBM Corporate Archives.
At its height, IBM Endicott employed 19,000 people in the region and the majority of the population of the city. Yet the decline of the manufacturing economy took its toll quickly and ruthlessly on the area, as the company transferred these operations to larger U.S. cities and overseas. In 2002, IBM sold the campus to Huron Real Estate Associates. Today, most of the campus lies empty, covering a sprawling 150 acres of land in the middle of Endicott and enclosing 4.1 million square feet of vacant space. The bulk of the occupied office, laboratory, and manufacturing space—a fraction of the total at 400,000 square feet—has been leased to BAESystems (which moved to Endicott after flooding in 2011 left its headquarters in the nearby Town of Union unsalvageable), and the 1300 workers who use the site on a near-daily basis have helped in some measure to reinvigorate the local economy. Other small sections of space are occupied by local businesses and by Binghamton University, which leases laboratories for its Center for Advanced Microelectronics Manufacturing. The cafeteria is owned by a catering company and rented for weddings and other events. The North Street laboratory is entirely unoccupied, yet the red brick exterior appears eerily pristine, still exhorting the viewer to “Think.” The white rows of the factories across North Street are peeling but intact. Yet overall, the area feels lost to time, a postindustrial wasteland with that uncanny feeling characteristic of other abandoned Rust Belt sites, as though one day everyone simply packed up and left.
Photo (above): IBM Endicott, North Street laboratory, 2014. Photo courtesy of Julia Walker.
Increasingly, however, Rust Belt denizens are thinking creatively about how to use their unique architectural assets (H. H. Richardson’s Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane and the landmark’s current renovation by Deborah Berke into a hotel, conference, and event center comes to mind. Notably, the structure will also house the Buffalo Architecture Center, which will document and promote the city’s distinctive architectural heritage). Rumors of the urban revivals of Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and even parts of Detroit have suggested that the most successful strategies for architectural reuse tap into the desires of a population that is young, energetic, educated, and hip enough to appreciate the architecture of an earlier era. Fortunately for IBM Endicott, the area has plenty such inhabitants and will gain plenty more in the immediate future; Binghamton University is already the county’s largest employer and is expected to grow rapidly in the coming years. Last month, BU announced that it would build a 70,000 square foot pharmacy school in nearby Johnson City. And under the aegis of SUNY 2020, a partnership between the State University of New York system and the office of the governor, the university will add 2,000 students, 175 professional staff and 150 faculty members over the next four years. On a campus already seriously strapped for space, chance for civically minded expansion seems to be at hand, and an opportunity for both architectural and economic revitalization.
Photo (right): Factory facade on North Street, 2014. Photo courtesy of Julia Walker.
Julia Walker is Assistant Professor of Art History at Binghamton University.
1. Cheryl Taylor Desmond, Shaping the Culture of Schooling: The Rise of Outcome-Based Education (Albany: SUNY Press, 1996), 35.
2. Emerson W. Pugh, Building IBM: Shaping an Industry and its Technology (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995), 55.
3. “IBM branch office building, Endicott, N.Y.,” Architectural Record (May 1966): 156, and “Bureaux, laboratoires et usines I.B.M. aux États-Unis et en Europe,” Architecture d'aujourd'hui 34, no. 111 (December 1963-January 1964): 40-50.