Businesses change addresses all the time, and old buildings are often knocked down to make room for new ones. So the announcement last week that such a fate was in store for the Times and its Walnut Creek facility wasn't exactly heart-stopping news.
But for those of us who know the Shadelands building as our workplace -- many of whom predate me -- that reality was digested with equal tinges of nostalgia and regret. There's nothing special about the structure, unless you are fond of concrete and stone, but its symbolism as an institution is not easily dismissed.
"It meant a lot because it was such an anchor," said former Publisher George Riggs. "If you look at its size -- I think the parcel is 14¿1/2 acres; the building is 170,000 square feet -- it signified to the community our presence and our commitment to stay there. We were right in the middle of Walnut Creek."
It's where visionary former owner Dean Lesher saw the future -- burgeoning bedroom communities in need of a newspaper to call their own -- and completed his pioneering plan to turn a collection of freely distributed local newspapers into a paid suburban daily that competed with the established San Francisco Chronicle for advertisers, subscribers and headlines.
"He was a brilliant guy, an absolute genius and workaholic," said Riggs, who was with the publication from 1985 until 2004. "He was very focused on local news and high-quality coverage. He never worried about things like winning a Pulitzer Prize."
Lesher caught the newspaper bug early in his career, grandson Steve Lesher said. "He was an attorney for the Kansas City Star. That's where his newspaper connection began. His attitude was 'If they can run a newspaper, I can surely run one.'"
His first venture, The Daily Tribune, in Fremont, Neb., was a failure, but it taught him a valuable lesson.
"He talked openly about the mistake of buying a newspaper in an area with no housing or business growth," Steve said. "When he came out to California and took a plane ride and looked over Contra Costa, he saw potential for growth."
He purchased the Walnut Creek Courier-Journal in 1947, and later added the local weeklies that formed the backbone of what became the Contra Costa Times in 1952. By the end of the 1970s, Lesher's dream required grander headquarters, leading to construction in the Shadelands Industrial Park.
"It's the only location I've ever known for the newspaper," Steve Lesher said. "Granddad took a lot of pride in that big campus. He was completely in his element there."
The lobby still conveys a sense of history. A 19th-century Shniedewend hand press and an Underwood manual typewriter greet visitors as they enter. An 1886-vintage Mergenthaler Linotype machine hugs the wall alongside the receptionist's cubicle. A laminated recitation of the First Amendment hangs to the left of the door to the newsroom, and a bronze bust of Dean Lesher sits far to the right.
"I was sad to hear about the building," Riggs said. "But the building is just a facility. What I remember is all the exceptional people and the exceptional work they did there."
Now, don't misunderstand -- the Times isn't going away. The metro editorial staff is moving a few blocks to smaller quarters because there's no longer a need for a facility so big. We'll do what we always do, just at a new address. But we'll do so knowing we left behind a special link to our past.
Contact Tom Barnidge at email@example.com.