Between 1928 and 1932, two Art Deco skyscrapers were built in Lower Manhattan to house the telecommunications infrastructure for Western Union and AT&T. Almost 100 years later, the towers are still fulfilling their original intentions as data centres for Telx, an internet services company.
The new film Urban Giants goes inside these towers, located at 60 Hudson Street and 32 Avenue of the Americas, to see the history of global telecommunications.
Both towers were designed by architect Ralph Walker, who also designed the Barclay-Vesey Telephone Building, now known as the Verizon Building. Apparently getting these telephone building commissions were the choice gigs of the day — the clients paid well but also had an eye for good design. Indeed, these buildings are significant for the way they transformed the telephone and telegraph industries, but they're also extremely beautiful structures as well.
"A hundred million telegrams will pass through this building," the signage proclaimed outside Western Union's building when it was under construction, a gasp-inducing fact. But New York City was also undergoing a telephone revolution — there were more telephones being installed here than anywhere else on the planet — and the buildings also represented a commitment to this changing technology.
Accordingly, the buildings themselves required new advances in construction to contain this new hulking infrastructure. Behind the ornate detail, foundations were reinforced to support the heavy equipment above. As impressive as they were on the inside, they were also grand and imposing structures on the street, living up to their role as the new "nerve centres" for the world.
Inside the AT&T "long lines" building, operators (mostly women) would control thousands of manual switches which allowed them to connect long-distance phone calls all over the world. With such high-stress working conditions, AT&T provided excellent perks, like fancy commissaries with fine dining, social events, and even dormitories where they could rest.
Over in the Western Union building, the telegraph lines included a network of pneumatic tubes which would shuffle the telegrams around the building. It was here that Walker's design was incredibly fortuitous: The thick tubes are perfect for holding the bundled fibre optic cables that our internet service travels upon, making the buildings easy to retrofit as present-day data centres for Telx.
Now that you know the stories behind them, you'll never be able to unsee these castles of communication squatting right there in the middle of New York City. I highly encourage watching the whole film, which is written by Andrew Blum, the author of Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet and directed by Davina Pardo. [Urban Giants]
Pictures: Stills by David Sundberg/Esto for Telx; "Tube Center at 60 Hudson, from the Western Union archives at the Smithsonian