Underemployment: Telephone Exchange Buildings

By December 12, 2011blog
Bell Telephone scribed into stone at a 1920s central exchange building in New York

The Postal Service’s recent notice of layoffs and facility closures brought to mind another building type once full of people and now empty: the Telephone Exchange Building.

Begun in earnest during the 1870s as an outgrowth of telegraphs, the voice-carrying telephone system spread rapidly throughout urban areas, with every single telephone line returned to central buildings known as telephone exchanges. Here, these lines, tens of thousands in dense urban neighborhoods, were routed to human-operated switchboards where connections were made by hand.

In New York, the exchanges reached a zenith in the years leading up to WWII, with untold lines gathered & distributed in solid, well-appointed civic buildings that sometimes rose over twenty stories and were often humane, finely wrought works of Architecture.

Beyond hosting a once cutting-edge technology, these centrally-located buildings also provided a place of employment within their communities, where hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people – mostly women – worked shifts 24/7.

Employment demand stayed high for some time after WWII until automated switching, a technology almost as old as the telephone, finally matured sufficiently to replace local, then international, human operators.

Ben Mendelsohn’s recent Bundled, Buried & Behind Closed Doors, shows how these buildings have retained their role in the city’s nervous system as internet data routing hubs, while also revealing how few onsite people are required. Many exchanges, however, sit nearly vacant and awaiting creative reuse, hundreds of thousands of square feet made obsolete by advancing technology.

And so it goes now with the Postal Service, another community-based bricks & mortar civic infrastructure, based largely on paper and human effort, that is coming to difficult terms with automated digital communication – lets hope that the men & women who have carried our mail, and the civic buildings that have housed them, can be put back to work soon.

Bell Telephone scribed into stone at a 1920s central exchange building in New YorkBell Telephone scribed into stone at a 1920s central exchange building in New York that once employed thousands and is now down to a handful of technical overseers. The architectural treatment of exchange buildings was often similar to libraries of the time.

Bell Telephone building typical empty exchange space awaits fit-out, generous daylight exposing the ghosts of human-operated switchboard consoles still visible on the floorA typical empty exchange space awaits fit-out, generous daylight exposing the ghosts of human-operated switchboard consoles still visible on the floor. A remote closet of incomparably smaller digital switches now handles all the work.

Cut copper cables that reflect changing equipmentCut copper cables that reflect both changing equipment and in this case, like vacant lots and burned-out buildings, a residential depopulation of the surrounding community; each paired strand, hundreds in each cable, used to run to someone’s telephone.

Typical telephone central office NYC, 1914Telephony was once a radical invention, and its rapid installation throughout NYC (thanks in part to bundling lines with subway construction) gave the city a huge business advantage and a distribution backbone that remains vital.

A typical Operating Room: switchboards line the perimeter of the otherwise open space, with a central desk for the chief operatorA typical Operating Room: switchboards line the perimeter of the otherwise open space, with a central desk for the chief operator.

Front & back view of the switchboardsFront & back view of the switchboards in the plan above. 

the human-operated switchboard section viewThe electro-mechanical genius of the human-operated switchboard. 

Telephone operators lunch room, Photo from The Outlook, April 21 1920Though the telegraph had employed young men to tap out Morse code, telephone companies preferred women employees, noting their superior voice and “agreeable temperament” – early 20th century code for hoping they wouldn’t unionize.
Photo from The Outlook, April 21 1920.

Operators' Rest Room: domestically-themed retreats that are punctuated by massive columns needed to support heavy-duty fireproofed floors. Photo from The Outlook, April 21 1920Gender politics and industrial labor collide in the domestically-themed retreats that are punctuated by massive columns needed to support heavy-duty fireproofed floors.
Photo from The Outlook, April 21 1920.