New York's Urban Giants:

Bell Telephone in the 1920s

By Kathryn E. Holliday

In 1926, the New York Telephone Company celebrated the completion of its new headquarters at 140 West Street in Manhattan. The building, a celebrated piece of Art Deco architecture, took five years to build and involved a herculean excavation seventy feet below ground into bedrock. Photographers and artists documented its rise as a monument to a new era of skyscraper construction that would completely redefine the New York skyline. Upon its completion, critic Lewis Mumford, writing for the New Republic, immediately judged it a success: “Here in all its main lines, is our present business regime––with no nonsense about it. What a relief to have no nonsense about it!”

 

The Barclay-Vesey building, originally known as 140 West Street, was the first of a new generation of tall telephone building architecture built throughout New York and across the country during the 1920s that redefined the telephone company’s public image as progressive and modern, while also emphasizing efficiency and pragmatism. Changes in technology and the rise of long distance telephone service repositioned the role of the telephone in everyday life and pushed the company to develop a new kind of building that could deftly balance the functional needs of infrastructure with the aspirational goals of corporate marketing. With their conversion to luxury condominiums, those restrained but well-placed nods to corporate identity have found new purpose.

 

For three-quarters of a century many have considered skyscrapers as affirmations of corporate confidence, but the New York Telephone Company entered this new terrain with some caution. Originally, the Barclay-Vesey Building dwarfed the neighborhood around it, towering over the adjoining Washington Market and the four- and five-story commercial buildings that lined the docks along the Hudson. The new tower did not blend in as the buildings it replaced had done. The original New York Telephone complex on Cortlandt and Dey Streets at Broadway (now demolished), designed by Eidlitz & McKenzie in the 1880s and 1890s, resembled many of the other groups of historic office buildings in the area. But with the Barclay-Vesey Building, the company embraced the opportunity and necessity to do something different by constructing the first of a series of telephone company buildings they dubbed “urban giants.”


The necessity arose from the rise of commercial long distance telephone service and a sudden and notable increase in home telephone use. On January 25, 1915, the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (the original AT&T)  staged a dramatically engineered “first” transcontinental telephone call in the United States, connecting Alexander Graham Bell in New York to his longtime assistant Dr. Thomas A. Watson in San Francisco 3,400 miles away. The call, however, was merely a publicity stunt, one that reenacted the well-known eureka moment from 1876, when Bell called Watson in an adjoining laboratory and stated, “Mr. Watson, come here, I want you.” That long distance call became the cornerstone of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company president Theodore Vail’s corporate vision for “universal service” for all of its customers. Universal service would tie subscribers to Bell-affiliated local telephone companies across the country because only they could provide seamless access to the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, the  single most power-

ful long distance provider and, as it happened, the majority owner of most local telephone companies. Universal service became part of a larger strategy that cemented the power of the Bell Telephone monopoly until its forced breakup in 1984.

 

To increase its customer base and to add long distance service to the existing telephone network required the building of new facilities that would allow more efficient connections between the local wired network, operated by the regional telephone companies such as New York Telephone, and the long distance networks, operated by the American Telephone and Telegraph Company. New switchboard technology partially automated local calls, but the 

Ceiling in the main lobby of the Barclay-Vesey Building depicting the evolution of human communication.

Exterior of the Barclay-Vesey Building

the increase in subscribers meant a greater number of telephone operators were needed to handle the volume of local calls and to make manual connections to the long distance network.

 

In order to function, every telephone in New York City required two pairs of wires, one going into and one coming out of a telephone building. After World War I, subscriptions increased so rapidly that the company quickly ran out of space. As the numbers of telephones in the city topped more than one million in 1929, the New York Telephone Company expanded its local directory from two volumes to five.

 

The new telephone buildings thus had to be big—very big—to accommodate all the wires, switchboards, and people required to operate and maintain them. The Barclay-Vesey Building had five sub-basements that contained batteries, generators, and underground vaults for cables that threaded in and out of the building. The first through the tenth floors housed the infrastructure of the local telephone network: its copper wires, switchboards, operators, and traffic engineers. The building also housed six separate central offices, which served Lower Manhattan. The eleventh floor and above housed managerial functions such as accounting, billing, marketing, and real estate services. The executive offices—suites that recalled the cozy lounges of private clubs—occupied the top floors. All in all, the building’s 850,000 square feet of space were occupied exclusively by the telephone company.

 

It was part of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company’s corporate philosophy in the 1920s to combine the management and marketing departments with the technical operations, thus creating a paternalistic, familial management style that sought to establish a sense of loyalty and belonging among its enormous workforce. Managing the female telephone operators and separating them from male telephone engineers became an important consideration for spatial requirements. From the employee cafeteria in the second basement of the Barclay-Vesey Building to the operators’ lounges, to the auditorium, and boardroom located on the top floor, the building coordinated all of its various functions and gender divisions into an orderly, structured corporate environment.

 

The scale of the new building provided an opportunity to create a new rhetoric to justify the headquarters’ scale and ambition. From its founding, the telephone company was under public scrutiny for the cost of its service, and it was hesitant to build anything that could be construed as extravagant. In November of 1926, just as the Barclay-Vesey Building was completed, a New York Times headline read, “City Still Fights Rise in Phone Rates,” and declared the company’s treatment of its subscribers as “unjust.” Spending on a luxurious headquarters building was not in the company’s interest as it attempted to justify its rates to city and state regulators charged with scrutinizing the terms of its franchise.

 

Ralph Walker, a gifted designer among the team of architects and engineers at McKenzie, Voorhees & Gmelin (MVG) who designed the building, declared the tower an example of “a new architecture,” and “as modern as the telephone activity it houses.” The American Telephone and Telegraph Company used the term “American Perpendicular” to describe its skyward reach and the emphasis on its vertical piers that traced the building’s rise from the ground into the clouds. Creating the impression of height for a building that occupied an entire city block was a fundamental challenge and MVG experimented with a series of mass models and diagrams before arriving at the dramatic twisted setback tower. While engineered with a steel frame and massive reinforced concrete floor slabs in order to support the heavy wires and switchboard equipment, the exterior curtain walls rise in parallel piers of buff brick, an economical material that suggests a workaday modesty. The only relief to these cascades of brick comes in the form of ornamental cast-stone panels that cap the transition points in the building’s setbacks. These panels contain imagery of mountain lions, grapevines, sunflowers, snails, goats, cranes, parrots, squirrels, and elephants that suggest a primeval landscape that was only recently conquered by modern man. On the exterior, the only nod to the telephone is a rather restrained image of a bell, the company’s symbol, entangled in vines that mark the main entrances.

Signaling by cannon fire

Native American communicating with smoke signals

Medieval knights conveying messages with flags

Early Egyptians communicating using megaphones

Aztec runner carrying messages on foot

Ancient Romans signaling by fire

Inside, the grand lobby features twelve hand-painted ceiling murals that depict primitive precursors to the telephone through images of Native American smoke signals; Aztec runners who carried messages on foot; Ancient Egyptian megaphones; West African drums; carrier pigeons used by Asian merchants; as well as light signals, cannon fire, and semaphores or flag signals used throughout western history. The central ceiling panels feature a bursting aurora of electricity to indicate the success of modern communication.  The qualities of strength and durability became the trademarks of New York Telephone buildings throughout the next ten years. After the construction of the Barclay-Vesey Building, the newly renamed Voorhees, Gmelin & Walker (VGW) designed a series of central office buildings across New York and New Jersey that used the Barclay-Vesey headquarters as their model. Each of these central office buildings dwarfed its surrounding neighborhood, through either height or sheer bulk, and each took its cue from Barclay-Vesey’s expressive use of brick and cast stone ornament to achieve an efficiently handsome industrial-corporate aesthetic hybrid. Some of these office buildings refined Barclay-Vesey’s first steps toward the abstraction that would come to be recognized as characteristically Art Deco. At the Long Island headquarters of the New York Telephone Company at 101 Willoughby Street (1930, now called BellTel Lofts) the organic ornamentation of Barclay-Vesey disappeared, replaced by chevrons, diamonds, and starbursts. The sheer number of telephone buildings built within five years required this less aesthetically intensive approach to the production of ornament, and VGW developed a formula for generating  decorative touches at secondary telephone buildings at 204 Second Avenue (1930); 212 West 18 Street (1929, now called Walker Tower); 425 West 50 Street (1927, now called Stella Tower); and 228 East 56 Street (1929). By the end of the 1920s, VGW drew on Walker’s focus on the material texture of humanism, his metaphorical understanding of the curtain wall as a drapery—explored with elegance at One Wall Street—and created an interior design department to focus on the firm’s increasingly sophisticated interiors. Together these buildings represented more than one million additional square feet of office and infrastructure for the New York Telephone Company, all built in a single decade.

 

The culmination of 1920s telecommunications buildings were the twin Long Lines and Western Union Buildings erected on West Broadway south of Canal Street. Since 1914, the American Telephone and Telegraph Company and Western Union had occupied adjoining offices at the Walker-Lispenard building, and the two competing companies had jostled and vied for space as long distance, telegraph, and radio operations strained the seams of that structure. Despite vertical and lateral expansions, by the 1920s both companies needed more space. They agreed to separate, and VGW designed new buildings for each company. Western Union, at 60 Hudson Street

 was built in 1930, followed by the American Telephone and Telegraph Company’s renovation and expansion of the existing Eidlitz & McKenzie Long Lines Building that was transformed into the current structure at 32 Avenue of the Americas in 1932. Both towers are essays in the seamless integration of infrastructure and technology into urban contexts. These buildings, which were originally connected through a series of cable vaults and pneumatic tubes that ran in tunnels under the streets, housed generators, batteries, switchboards, and antennas as well as workforces of thousands.

 

In their sheer brick facades, unadorned by the stylized cast-stone panels of the New York Telephone Company buildings, they realized the dream of the American Perpendicular as an optimistic expression of a machine age utopia. The American Telephone and Telegraph Company marketed the Long Lines Buildings as the “crossroads of communication” between Europe and America, an enduring symbol for American technological sophistication.

Façade ornamentation of the Barclay-Vesey Building

About the Author:

Kathryn E. Holliday, author of Ralph Walker: Architect of the Century, is an architectural historian whose research and teaching focuses on the built environment in American cities.

All photos: Meghan Weatherby

Article originally published in the Art Deco New York journal, Vol. 2, Issue 1, Spring 2017. View a digital version of the full journal here.

© 2020 Copyright Art Deco Society of New York, Inc. 

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