WALKING OUT TO MEET THE FUTURE . . . OR GIANT STEP BACKWARD?
You’ll have to wait until next time for my usual rant about safe driving because I just learned something totally unrelated to driving that requires immediate comment. Here goes!
To set the scene here’s a short quote from a book I’m working on. This book is a loosely tethered ramble through my adventures as a working stiff leading up to and including Adventures of a Driving Instructor, which is what I’m thinking of calling this work. Everybody ought to do this, by the way. Even if nobody reads it, writing a book is a heck of a cathartic for clearing the heart, mind and soul. Anyway, enough of that, here’s the quote:
“As the sun rose above the fir trees to the east, the panorama through the all-glass wall beyond Charlie’s desk was breathtaking. I watched in wonder as the moving light pierced the rising morning mist and caught the colors of the Rhododendron gardens on the west slope of the vast meadow stretching out below. Then as if on cue our two snow white swans, gracious gifts to the company from the people of Japan, arose from their slumber, stretched their wings and gracefully slipped from their private island habitat onto the glassy surface of the lake to create their gentle wakes.”
This was the scene to which I was treated as, coffee mug in hand, I waited for the others to arrive for an early morning meeting where we were about to brief a senior VP for his upcoming visit to the Far East. The date was May 11, 1978. The time was six a.m. The place was the top floor of the Weyerhaeuser corporate headquarters in Federal Way, Washington.
When I went to work for the company in the mid sixties, Weyerhaeuser corporate functions were – if this makes sense – in one place but scattered. Worldwide operations of the forest products conglomerate were guided from all or major parts of more than twenty different office buildings in and around downtown Tacoma, which had been home base since founder Frederick Weyerhaeuser moved the company headquarters west at the turn of the century.
In 1971, under the leadership of George H. Weyerhaeuser, the firm consolidated these functions into a new corporate home at Federal Way, which was at the time a mostly rural and picturesque area a few miles north of Tacoma. I was there for the opening where we listened to the architects proudly describe their work and heard the corporate seniors extol the alleged (my emphasis) benefits of the then-new open office concept (I wanted my office back). Having written a lot of the PR hype and other promotional work that went along with this event I was, one might say, on pretty intimate terms with this building.
I won’t even try to describe this building because my words will not do it justice. Images and descriptions abound online for you to see. This was and is an architectural masterpiece. The structure, situated amid a lush, wooded 480 acre campus, is like no other. The working environment was unlike anything I had ever experienced before or would ever experience again.
Why am I going on like this about a building? After all, it’s just a building.
I just learned that the company is about to abandon this magnificent Federal Way facility and relocate its headquarters to an oversize breadbox in downtown Seattle. With due respect to the corporate decision-makers and to the City of Seattle I find this unthinkable! Breaking faith with its historic ties to south Puget Sound and the City of Tacoma is bad enough but to trade in this engineering marvel of unparalleled beauty for an ordinary concrete box in the middle of any downtown is an insult to the public, the shareholders, the employees past and present, and a betrayal of the proud tradition of what many thought of as the most innovative of the world’s forest products giants. This one-of-a-kind headquarters complex was the heart of that innovative spirit. During my years there I wrote countless words about Weyerhaeuser products, capabilities, history and accomplishments. Not once did the word “downsize” appear in any of it.
I’ve often thought about the annual shareholders meeting in 1971 when the new campus was dedicated to grand press and public fanfare. The massive dining area, crowded to overflowing with well wishers, went silent as George Weyerhaeuser rose to speak. He hesitated for a long moment, turning his head first to the right to survey the long meadow spread below, then to the left to take in the lake with its swans. Then, he returned his gaze to the crowd and, with uncharacteristic emotion said simply, “We are walking out to meet the future!” Surely this move was not what he had in mind when he made that statement. For me, this building for as long as it stands will always be Weyerhaeuser Company.
If any of you Weyerhaeuser alums out there happen to see this and are feeling talkative, I will welcome your comments, favorable or otherwise. Thank you.