AUSWR
The Association of U S West Retirees
 

 

 

Bell and whistles
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 area.

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 exterior finish."

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 five floors.

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 said.

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," Hackenburg said.

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 wrecked equipment.

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.

http://www.rockymountainnews.com/drmn/real_estate/article/0,1299,DRMN_414_4477881,00.html