Fullerton has been home to many large manufacturing companies over the years, such as the Hughes Aircraft Company, and Sylvania Electric Products. More recently, the Kimberly-Clark plant was torn down and along with it, one of the last remaining orange groves in Orange County. However, the Beckman Instruments building, located at 4300 North Harbor Boulevard, is still standing, and was just selected to receive a 2021 Governor’s Historic Preservation Award. This award is the only official preservation award presented by the State of California to recognize exceptional achievements in the field of historic preservation. While the awards ceremony won’t occur until April, I wanted to take a deeper look at the history of the Beckman Instruments Administrative Building.
According to Bob Ziebell’s Fullerton: A Pictorial History, “The company dates back to 1935 when a young chemistry professor at the California Institute of Technology used his skill and inventiveness to build a simple pH meter for a scientist friend.” This professor was Dr. Arnold O. Beckman, and he worked with two students in a metal shed to develop a pH meter or acidimeter, a device that could precisely determine the acidity or alkalinity of any solution. The pH meter became such a huge success within the scientific community that Beckman was able to resign from his teaching job at CalTech and take on the full-time role as President of National Technical Laboratories.
With World War II underway, there was a greater demand for scientific instruments. According to the Fullerton Heritage webpage for Beckman Instruments, Beckman realized there was a “great need for new spectroscopic instrumentation. In the 1940s, he invented the first quartz spectrophometer, the commercial infrared spectrophometer, the precision helical potentiometer, the analytical ultracentrifuge, the direct-writing oscillographic recorder, and the automatic amino acid analyzer.” The DU Spectrophometer helped revolutionize chemical measurement to the point where many scientists divide the history of biochemistry into periods, pre-DU and post-DU. All these ground-breaking scientific inventions led to the growth of National Technical Laboratories, which was renamed Beckman Instruments, Inc. in 1950.
In 1953, the company needed additional space, so they started construction on an expensive factory and headquarters here in Fullerton, which cost $2.5 million to build. Beckman Instruments’ headquarters and plant were established on a forty-acre orange grove in unincorporated land between La Habra and Fullerton “at a time when Fullerton was just beginning to industrialize,” leading to an economic boom “for the still mostly rural city,” according to Fullerton Heritage.
The 43,000-square-foot structure was the first large high-tech industrial “campus” to be developed in Fullerton, and one of the earliest in Orange County. According to historian Arnold Thackray in the book, Arnold O. Beckman: One Hundred Years of Excellence, “The design was highly modern, centered on the concept of flexibility for further expansion. Additional space could be easily constructed and integrated, and any interior spaces could be reconfigured quickly and efficiently. Such a flexible design befitted a firm dedicated to new instrumentation in a growing array of technologies.” The buildings were interconnected and there was extensive landscaping. Its Mid-Century Modern architecture was the precursor to many other major manufacturing companies in Fullerton in the 1950s and 60s.
Most of the plants and factories constructed in Fullerton during the postwar era were box-like structures. Some companies hired notable architects, such as Kimberly-Clark employing Skidmore, Owing and Merrill, and the American Electronics Plant hiring Eugene Choy, according to American Architects Directory. However, most of the architectural designs coming out of the postwar era weren’t remarkable. Beckman Instruments hired architect Lawrence Whitney Davidson to design their new facility, according to Fullerton Heritage. Davidson, whose early work was done in the Mid-Century Modern style, went on to design golf clubhouses, industrial plants, movie studios, school classrooms, and municipal buildings, transitioning easily between private, military, and public works projects. He had a strong background in both architecture and engineering and had designed other manufacturing plants before his Fullerton project. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Beckman administrative office building became a recognized architectural symbol of the scientific instruments company.
In an article in the February 20, 1953 issue of the Fullerton News Tribune, Beckman acknowledged that he had selected Fullerton because of its low tax rate and ample supply of water to run his operations. He also thought that Fullerton’s residential areas would be a good fit for his present and future employees. In November 1954, when the Beckman facility officially opened, 8,000 people toured the building, which was an impressive number of visitors given that Fullerton’s population at the time was only 13,958. In 1955, Beckman was chosen from a pool of 500 plant-of-the-year candidates to be honored with the Significant Plant Award from the national magazine, Factory Management & Maintenance. “Faced with extraordinary requirements for flexibility and expandability, Beckman meets both demands to a remarkable degree with a plant that is also a pacesetter in appearance and employee services,” noted the magazine.
Beginning with this Fullerton location, Beckman Instruments would grow from scattered locations into a unified, cohesive multinational corporation, and in the next 30 years would become one of the most recognizable firms in the world.
Nine hundred workers were hired at the Beckman facility, many of whom relocated from Pasadena and South Pasadena. Beckman Instruments required “a multitude of scientific professions, crafts, and skilled workers,” according to Fullerton Heritage. Over the decades, the company would go on to employ thousands of Fullerton residents, many of whom spent a large part of their lives at the Harbor Boulevard facility. The firm also hired a lot of Fullerton College and Cal State Fullerton graduates. Several former employees and company executives eventually left Beckman Instruments to form new companies, such as the International Biotronics Corporation, and an active group of Beckman retirees still meet in Fullerton.
By the time it closed its doors in 2010, Beckman Instruments had become a world leader in the development and manufacturing of products for scientific industries, medicine, education, space exploration, and defense, with its products helping scientific communities all over the world. Interestingly, scientists working on the Human Genome Project used Beckman’s Biomek 1000 robotic workstation in their study of DNA structure. Beckman Instruments had become a source of pride to local residents and a business hallmark for the City. The company built its reputation by making generous donations to local Fullerton groups, including St. Jude Hospital, the Boys Club, the United Fullerton Fund, and the Children’s League of Fullerton. Beckman gave away dozens of scholarships to local high school and college students; donated instruments to Fullerton College and CSUF; and provided funding for science and technology exhibits, programs, and field trips.
Today, the building is the home of A.J. Kirkwood Electric, a company involved in construction, electrical engineering, and systems technologies, and is located in the Beckman Business Center. Fullerton Heritage has helped preserve the building with few alterations. The city of Fullerton recently received a letter from the California Office of Historic Preservation, notifying them that the Beckman Instruments Administrative Building is among the projects selected to receive a 2021 Governor’s Historic Preservation Award. The letter was signed by Julianne Polanco, State Historic Preservation Officer, and was sent on behalf of Governor Gavin Newsom. The ceremony for the Governor’s Awards will be held Thursday, April 28 in Sacramento.
To view my video presentation of a visual history of the Beckman Instruments building, visit my YouTube channel HERE.