By Jeff Smith
Rocky Mountain News
Saturday, February 18, 2006
(Photo of building not included here: The west corner of
the Telephone Building illustrates the Modern American
Perpendicular style. The 15-story building, consisting of
buff-colored terra cotta on a pink granite base, takes up
half a city block.)
It was the last opulent Bell office building built. The
Telephone Building, at 14th and Curtis streets downtown,
across from the Denver Performing Arts Complex, is a mammoth
15-story skyscraper featuring arched entrances, 13
communications-related murals, vaulted ceilings with
oak-leaf friezes, hand-hammered wrought-iron light fixtures,
and marble-tile floors.
The building, approved by AT&T's board during the Roaring
'20s, opened in August 1929, two months before the stock
market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression.
"I call it the last of the Bell palaces," said Herbert
Hackenburg, a telephone company retiree turned tour guide
and historian for The Telecommunications History Group Inc.,
a Denver nonprofit.
Some 20,000 people toured the building during its opening,
each receiving a brochure about the murals.
For years, the central office was known as the Mountain
States Telephone & Telegraph Building. Now it is owned and
operated by Qwest Communications.
Last year, the Telephone Building made it onto the National
Register of Historic Places, one of more than 2,000 Colorado
structures to achieve such distinction since the 1966
passage of the National Historic Preservation Act.
Qwest has set aside some money for mural restoration, with
the work scheduled to start in June, said Qwest spokesman
Michael Dunne. He characterized Qwest Chief Executive
Officer Dick Notebaert as being "very supportive" of the
project. Costs weren't disclosed.
The Telecommunications History Group has received a grant by
the Colorado Historical Fund to create a "virtual tour" of
the building on the group's Internet site. The Internet
tour should be up by June.
Historian Thomas Simmons of Front Range Research Associates
Inc., who was asked to prepare the application for the
national designation, said the building is historically
significant, in part, because it housed new switching
equipment for the first non-operator-assisted calls in the
The facility was designed to bring in dial-telephone service
for about 40,000 customers in downtown Denver. In addition,
operators at a long-distance switchboard handled 10,000
calls a day.
Architecturally, the building "really stood out," Simmons
said. "It was the tallest building (in Colorado) until
1954. No expense was spared in terms of the interior and
Simmons described the architectural style as Late Gothic
Revival for the ornamentation at the top of the building and
Modern American Perpendicular for its vertical shape.
Denver architect William Bowman designed the building.
Other works of his include the state Office Building and
Cole Middle School.
The telephone company was able to get around the 12-story
height restrictions at the time because the upper stories
were set back from the street, Simmons said. The building
goes up 10 stories to a 20-foot setback, then rises another
Kay Lambert remembers being awestruck when she moved from
tiny Parsons, Kan., in 1951 to work in the Denver central
office. In Kansas, where she worked for Southwestern Bell,
"we were lucky for there to be brick buildings," she said.
Working in the Denver telephone building was "awesome,"
Lambert said. She was a night-shift telephone operator on
the fifth floor, taking care of her children and "sleeping
whenever I could" during the day. Later she worked on the
eighth floor, before retiring in 1983.
Back in its early days, customers would get dressed up to
come to the building to pay their bills in cash, Hackenburg
said. The money was put in tubes and sent directly to the
company treasury department.
Just about all the major construction materials came from
Colorado -- except for the marble, such as black and gold
marble imported from Alaska.
Otherwise, "it really is a Colorado building," Hackenburg
The building included an automated elevator, one of the
first in Denver. People weren't used to it, so attendants
were hired "to look like they were doing the operating,"
The Pioneer Museum, developed by a local volunteer group, is
also housed in the building. It includes everything from a
White House switchboard from President Eisenhower's
administration to dozens of different phones providing a
visual display of the evolution of the telephone.
Hackenburg said streetwise boys and dropouts were the first
to man telephone switchboards in the United States. They
were paid according to volume, but the situation soon
deteriorated into chaos, fighting, rude customer service and
So a woman was hired as an experiment, and the telephone
company quickly found that women were polite, respectful and
as dexterous -- if not more -- than their male counterparts.
"Within 18 months they were all replaced by women,"
Hackenburg said of the operators.
The murals were painted by Colorado Springs native Allen
True, who studied at Corcoran College of Art + Design in
Washington. They depicted industry themes and history,
including the Pony Express, Indian smoke signals,
telephone-pole installers, and key inventors such as
Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison.
One of the murals features the "Spirit of Service,"
portraying a lineman in deep snow.
In September 2002, Qwest launched a new motto, "Spirit of
Service," to replace its old "Ride the Light." The new tag
line was derived from a turn-of-the-century painting
depicting New England Bell lineman Angus Macdonald on
snowshoes maintaining a key 20-mile telephone line during
the Great Blizzard of 1888.
"I told Mr. Notebaert he (also) had his own painting" in
Denver, Hackenburg said, referring to the Allen True mural
that came later.