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Fire extinguishes debate over historic IBM shop

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IBM's historic Building 25 in San Jose, California — formerly at the center of a dispute between preservationists and a home repair chain — was destroyed by a fire over the weekend.

The three-alarm blaze substantially damaged the abandoned complex, leaving little in the ruins. IBM staff once worked on a precursor to the hard disk drive at the office.

About 75 firefighters spent more than eight hours battling the blaze before it was brought under control early Saturday morning.

The unexplained fire is, er, convenient for city planners and Lowe's home improvement store. Both have been in a legal tug-o-war with history buffs over the fate of the site.

For years, city preservation organizations have argued against San Jose's approval for demolition of the building that will see it replaced by a 180,000-square-foot Lowe's retail outlet. The city argued a new store would bring in half a million dollars a year in sales tax revenue.

The site had been closed by IBM since the mid-1990s, when Big Blue began to relocate its facilities to other parts of San Jose and Silicon Valley. In a previous life, the complex was an IBM headquarters where researchers developed the first hard disk drive to use a flying head. The advancement greatly improved a computer's ability to search the disk platter for data.

Architecturally, the building has been heralded as one of the earliest examples of Silicon Valley's technology campuses. Advocates of the site champion IBM's use of large glass walls, as opposed to the solid wall construction popular at the time, that provided ties between the landscaping, outdoor works of art and the indoor offices and labs.

In 2002, Lowe's purchased an 18.75 acre section of IBM's Cottle Road campus which included Building 25. The site was not yet registered on the city's historic resources inventory, and the company assumed the building could be torn down. But research done while evaluating the environmental impact of the demolition brought to light the building's architectural and historic value. Building 25 was eligible for federal and local protection despite being under 25 years old.

City planners first approved the demolition in 2003, but the plans were blocked by a lawsuit filed by the Preservation Action Council of San Jose. The city council revised the plans last June, but was again stifled by another lawsuit from the org.

Both sides say before the fire they were nearing a compromise which would allow a portion of the building to be remodeled and share the site with Lowe's, according to the San Jose Mercury News.

"This is devastating, in every sense of the word," said PAC-SJ Interim Executive Director Brian Grayson in a statement. "We have worked for years to save this iconic building that reflects not only architectural innovation and excellence but Silicon Valley's high-tech heritage."

Photos of the damage are available at the PAC-SJ website.

The groups are currently reevaluating their options for the site, which may include re-creating a wing of the building from the ground up, according to San Jose Mercury News.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation. ®

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