Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Ralph Walker's 1927 New York Telephone Building - 140 West Street



from the collection of the Library of Congress

On June 7, 1926 The Lima New York Recorder reported "Today a huge buff and gray mass adds another prominent feature to the famous profile of lower Manhattan; it is the building of the New York Telephone Company recently complete at 140 West Street."  Touting it as the "World's Largest Telephone Building," the article noted that it accommodated "an army of 6,000 telephone workers"--essentially the population of a small town.

The massive building project had started three years earlier, in 1923.  The newspaper explained that following World War I "the clamor for telephone service swelled until it bid fair to overwhelm a company whose reserve resources had been drained."  The New York Telephone Company's greatly enlarged staff and equipment were scattered throughout the city, often in leased space.

The newspaper noted that "To the architects, McKenzie, Voorhees and Gmelin was presented an exacting task.  Their plans had to provide a structure of a kind peculiar to the requirements of a telephone company and of a design which would not be unsightly and therefore objectionable to the citizens of New York."  The article failed to give credit to the specific architect responsible, however, and that was Ralph Walker.

Walker had not only produced a monumental structure, he set a new course for architects nationwide.  According to Margaret M. M. Pickart writing in the Landmarks Preservation Commission's designation report in 1991, "A pivotal structure in the history of skyscraper architecture, it is a prototypical example of what came to be regarded as the American Art Deco style."  As the building neared completion, celebrated artist Joseph Pennell deemed it "the most impressive modern building in the world."

Walker carried his Art Deco motif inside, most noticeably at the lobby level.  Painted ceiling panels done by muralist Hugo R. B. Newman and bronze plaques embedded in the flooring depicted events and developments in the history of communication.  Even the Art Deco chandeliers mimicked the setback configuration of modern skyscrapers.


photo via WFC Architects
Managing the transfer of the equipment and employees was a herculean task.  The Daily Star, a Queens newspaper noted on June 7, "The migration has been under way since last February."  The transfer required 1,650 moving vans.


photo via WFC Architects

Included in the building was the New York Telephone Company's Training School, where switchboard operators went through a four-week training period.  The company was precise in the type of women it needed (there were no male operators).  The Lima New York Recorder, in 1927, wrote "The successful applicant for telephone operating possesses quick mentality, a pleasant disposition and physical and mental alertness."

There was an on-site General Employment Bureau on the ground floor to handle filling the hundreds of positions.  "At this bureau, applications from young women are accepted for telephone operating positions and for the various kinds of clerical employment," explained the Millbrook Mirror and Round Table.  The applicants waited in a lounge furnished in a home-like atmosphere with tables and fringe-shaded lamps before being escorted to one of ten interview rooms.

Another necessity in such a mammoth building with hundreds of daily visitors was a lost-and-found room.  The Telephone Review reported in 1929 "During the past two months the lost articles returned to owners included: Gloves, rings, silk hose, handbags, money, wrist watches, pocket books, cameo, hand bag, keys, fraternity pin, scarf, umbrellas, x-ray picture, pay envelopes, cosmetic sets, ear rings, and one bag containing apples and potatoes."

Although actual fighting during World War II was taking place in Europe, New York was well aware that it was a potential target for enemy planes.  Even before the attack on Pearl Harbor drew the country into the conflict, the city was on alert.  On January 10, 1941 The New York Sun reported that several hundred "observers" had been placed at observation posts throughout the city.  Not surprisingly, one of them was the New York Telephone Building.  


In 1928 the New York Telephone Building loomed above all downtown buildings.  from the collection of the New-York Historical Society

By now the legions of New York Telephone workers had been creating Christmas cheer for years.  The Great Depression left many families without money to pay for gifts.  With their own jobs secure, the telephone workers shared their good fortune.  On December 8, 1938 The New York Sun reported "More than 2,000 members of the staff of the New York Telephone Company, 140 West street, are playing Santa Claus this year, and on Saturday will begin the initial distribution in hospitals, institutions and poor homes toys and playthings for approximately 3,000 children, who otherwise might have no Christmas."  

As in years past, the female employees provided dolls.  "These, in most cases, have been elaborately dressed by women employees of the Manhattan offices of the company, their hand-made costumes portraying every nationality and color and a wide variety of fashions."  The men contributed things like books, scrapbooks, "stream-lined trains, automobiles, airplanes and other mechanical novelties."  The annual Christmas toy distribution continued at least through 1946.

The New York Telephone Company embarked on another program in 1971 which was only marginally related to the telephone; but continued the firm's concern over families and children.  That year it began distributing free Child Return Kits.  It was a simple pocket-sized folder with space for the child's information on one side, and a slot for a dime on the other.  With the folder in his pocket, a lost child was identifiable; and if he were old enough to use a pay phone, he had the coin.  The company's announcement cautioned parents, "But don't forget to remind your child not to spend his emergency dime on an emergency like soda."

A large fire broke out in the building in 1975.  According to Steven Scher in his New York City Firefighting: 1901-2001, "hundreds of firefighters were injured and sick for months afterward from the burning wire insulation.  The fire knocked out wide areas of phone service as well."

New York Telephone Company ceased to exist when NYNEX was formed; the building became headquarters of Bell Atlantic after that firm merged with NYNEX; and eventually it was home to Verizon.  It all resulted in a change in the building's name as well.  The New York Telephone Company tag was dropped and 140 West Street became officially known as the Barclay-Vesey Building.

The damage of the 1975 fire was nothing compared to the carnage caused by the collapse of the World Trade Centers on September 11, 2001.  The government's May 2005 Environmental Impact Statement explained "When 7 WTC collapsed directly onto 140 West Street, Verizon's building was severely damaged and telephone and other communication services were cut off to large parts of Lower Manhattan."

Thousands of Verizon employees had to be temporarily relocated while repairs were made.  Glenn Collins, writing in The New York Times on January 6, 2003 said "The gaping holes in the tan-brick facade of the Verizon Building are still open to the ground zero void.  The blasted steelwork is jacked up like a Rube Goldberg contraption.  Only four tortured pieces of the 72-foot ornamental entranceway bronze work now exist.  Such are the wounds inflicted by the crushing debris from not one, but three, neighboring buildings: the north and south towers of the World Trade Center, and 7 World Trade Center, which pancaked next door."

photo by the Federal Emergency Management Agency

Verizon's New York manager for design and construction, Dominic P. Veltri, said of the massive project "What we're doing here is engineering on the fly.  We're changing a flat tire on a bus going down the highway at 60 miles an hour."  At the time $70 million had been spent to stabilize the building and, according to Collins, "the restoration is expected to cost at least $140 million more."

Each of the 1,800 windows were replaced, 520,000 facade bricks were recreated in Stone Creek, Ohio, and 22,500 cinder blocks and 93 tons of structural steel were required.  Inside the 15 ceiling murals had been damaged by burst water mains and firefighting efforts.  Four of them required extensive conservation and all needed to be cleaned.   The bronze entrance on Washington Street and the decorations above the ground floor windows were mutilated.  They were recast at the Excalibur Bronze Foundry under direction of William F. Collins, AIA Architects, LLP. 


photo via WFC Architects
Verizon brought its employees back in December 2005.   But yet another devastating event would take place seven years later.  On October 29, 2012 Hurricane Sandy hit New York City.  Lower Manhattan was swamped by an immense storm surge; the flooding reaching four feet high in the lobby.  Once again the 1,700 employees were relocated.

On April 11, 2013 The Times's architectural columnist David W. Dunlap, who called the lobby "a masterpiece of Jazz Age decorative art," wrote "As the company began recovering from the worst of the destruction, it became clear that the flooding had even affected 12 monumental ceiling frescoes...Paint was peeling, flaking and blistering."

The paintings were in danger of being lost.  The EverGreene Architectural Arts studio was hired to repair and stabilize the panels.  The meticulous, labor intensive project cost Verizon $160,000.


A conservator of William F. Collins Architects brings a ceiling panel back to life.  photo via WFC Architects

Only a month after The Times article Verizon announced it would move 1,100 employees from No. 140 West Street "and offer half of the 31-story tower for sale or lease."  Before the year's end developer Ben Shaoul purchased 22 floors for conversion to residential condominiums, known as One Hundred Barclay.


photo by Beyond My Ken
And Verizon had learned a valuable lesson in the meantime.  In October that year it began construction of a nine-foot high wall to protect the building against flooding.

1 comment:

  1. I worked in this building as an engineer for NY Telephone in 1970/71 before being transferred to a central office (where outside wires were manually connected to inside mechanical switches) to replace striking central office workers. Within a few years the entire system was replaced by computers that made instant connections and digitized phone calls, making many telephone buildings redundant. I’m glad 140 West Street survived that transition and two more disasters, and that it’s been so well preserved.

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