The Telephone Building: The First of a Two Part Series on the Downtown AT&T Building

Broadway, 1920’s, Before Viaduct

Today we welcome guest columnist Oren Yarbrough. You’ve seen his comments here. He’s an intern architect with DIA on Gay Street and he’s got a particular interest in what I’ve called the ugliest building in the city: The AT&T building on Broadway beside I-40. Here’s Oren:

Most people who have spent some time in Knoxville have driven over the Broadway viaduct, the soon-to-be-updated roadway that connects North Knoxville to all things south of the railroad tracks. Broadway has been a part of Knoxville industry, transportation, & commerce for about as long as the city has had such feathers in her cap to speak of. There was a time when Knoxville extended continuously north from the railroad tracks with thriving neighborhoods & businesses lining both Broadway and Central.

North Gay Street Aerial View

In the middle of the last century, as industries changed throughout the region, the land next to the rail lines in Knoxville went from a thriving hub of hotels, restaurants, commercial retailers, & wholesale warehouses to what we have today: little more than a series of parking lots. The demolition of large sections of buildings surrounding North Gay Street 50 years ago for the interstate overpass created a visual barrier that has hampered development north of downtown ever since. It is only recently that sections of the neighborhoods north of downtown have begun to see commercial and residential growth to a scale that is grabbing the attention of developers and outside investors.

Regarding Broadway, as many of you who have driven this section of road have noticed, we have an image problem of sorts. From the interstate looking downtown and from downtown looking past the interstate visitors and Knoxvillians alike get a face full of the same thing: the massive concrete block that makes up the AT&T campus.

AT&T Building as Seen from the Interstate

This building has been declared an eyesore of sorts pretty much since the day the last major addition was constructed. In a period of time when downtown Knoxville was dying and people were not actively investing in the land surrounding the central business district, any development that filled a vacant lot was seen as a plus. Now the AT&T building is a massive structure that dominates the scenery in the one block wide swatch of land between the interstate and the Broadway and Gay street viaducts. Most people would say this building is seen as a net negative in terms of Knoxville building stock.

AT&T Building as seen from the Broadway Viaduct

This two-part article will discuss the surprisingly important and varied history of the AT&T Building, and propose a simple idea to try and give this structure some good press in the city & also the region. Wish me luck.

The AT&T building as we know it today is actually 5 separate additions to one building that dates back over a century. Cumberland Telephone & Telegraph built the original structure in 1912 and ran their main offices in this location, at the corner of Broadway & Magnolia, until they were purchased by Southern Bell in the 1920’s.

Aerial Photograph Showing the Phases of Additional Construction to the AT&T Building

Southern Bell Telephone & Telegraph expanded the “Telephone Building”, as it came to be referred to, multiple times from the late 20’s through the late 40’s, ultimately leading up to the massive expansion of the concrete building we all know and love sometime around the early 1980’s. During this era of progress and growth Southern Bell grew to become BellSouth & then what we know today as AT&T.

Using old Sanborn Insurance maps from the last 100 years & a handful of historic Thompson Photographs of the Telephone Building and Old Broadway I was able to find out an even more impressive find in the history of the structure; something that warrants it being given attention and at least partially preserved. Expansions made to the Telephone Building by Southern Bell from the late 1920’s through the 1940’s were designed by famous Atlanta architecture firm “Marye, Algers, & Vinour”. My discovery of this information was in thanks to a construction sign on a historic Thompson Photograph from late 1920’s when one of the first major additions was under way.

Southern Bell Telephone Exterior, 1930s, Marye Alger Vinour Sign on Building

Marye, Algers, & Vinour was a locally significant and somewhat famous architecture firm based out of Atlanta the first half of the 20th century. Marye, Algers, & Vinour is most famous for being the architecture firm responsible for designing the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, the historic Southern Bell Headquarters in Atlanta, & the Greenville County courthouse in SC. In addition to those buildings, which are still standing, Marye, Algers, & Vinour also designed the now destroyed train terminals each for Atlanta, Birmingham, & Mobile; of which only the Mobile Terminal remains.

Atlanta Southern Bell Headquarters

Fox Theatre, Atlanta

Greenville County Courthouse

A quick look at any of the train terminals can show you just how great the breadth of work “Marye, Algers, Vinour” created in their heyday. One source I read states that P Thornton Marye of the firm was neighbors with Southern Bell’s president and so their office designed not only the new Atlanta headquarters, but most of the regional offices throughout the south as the company expanded.

May, 1955 – Atlanta, Ga: Today’s towerless, expanded Terminal Station. Expansion and renovation came in 1947 after press campaign.

Mobile, Alabama Train Terminal

Birmingham Train Terminal

Most sources credit P. Thornton Marye with designs related to Southern Bell during the decades of the 1920’s through the 1940’s, meaning, our Telephone Building has significant connections to other structures throughout the Southeastern United States via his legacy. Marye also worked in a handful of other partnerships, some only lasting a few years. One other significant piece of work Marye’s name is associated with is the Louisiana Surpreme Court Building in the French Quarter, New Orleans.

Louisiana State Supreme Court Building

Around the turn of the 20th century, Raleigh ,North Carolina had a massive renaissance and building boom that Marye was also a major part of; building the North Carolina State administration building, the Raleigh City Hall & Auditorium, Wake County Courthouse, and numerous “modern” banking towers in downtown Raleigh. A handful of these structures are still surviving today and can be visited.

Raleigh State Administration Bulding

Citizen’s National Bank

Raleigh City Hall and Auditorium

Wake County Courthouse

When you drive by the Telephone Building today you can mostly discern the different additions that make up the structure and get a rough idea of the timeline they were constructed. The oldest structure is the façade that dominates most of Magnolia today. This building, the original Cumberland Telephone, had a small addition in the early 1920’s before it was purchased by Southern Bell. Despite the Magnolia face of the building looking like one structure if you look closely you can see where there is a distinct line in the brick on the front of the building.

Southern Bell Telephone, 1920s, Magnolia Avenue View

The next major addition to the Telephone Building was completed in the late 1920’s, sometime after Southern Bell purchase Cumberland Telephone. The original image referenced earlier by Thompson from the time of construction shows this addition almost completed. The first addition by Marye, Algers, and Vinour was only two stories high and was capped in a stone ornamental detail that is seen at the top and centered on the structure.

If you look at this portion of the building today you will notice this stone piece is midway up the face of the building on Broadway. In the 1940’s another addition was made to the building that added more levels to the existing wing. The later addition looks to be of the same style of architecture as the addition before, but with less detailing and ornamentation; It’s this wing that attaches Knoxville historically to other southern cities experiencing an economic boom around the turn of the century; Atlanta, Birmingham, Raleigh, & New Orleans.

Southern Bell Telephone Exterior, 1930s, Mayre, Alger and Vinour Sign Enlarged

AT&T Building, 3D Massing showing building phases of construction

The Telephone Building was both blessed and cursed with its location and proximity to downtown. The interstate has slowly decimated this portion of the city since it’s construction decades ago. The influx of KARM and the flattening of nearby neighbors has created something like an economic vacuum. Having the Telephone Building attached to the large vault like server building has been what has saved it from being abandoned or demolished decades ago.

The same ugly eye-sore that is now a crux of the downtown skyline has been a symbiotic steward for the historically interesting appendages that now beg to be restored and given new life. Now that outside development has begun to occur in the blocks surrounding the Telephone Building and beyond the interstate, I would like to share my idea to try and turn this net negative into something the city is proud of.

One last interesting factoid to share. Because Southern Bell merged Knoxville’s regional markets into its company in the 1920’s from older businesses like Cumberland Telephone & Telegraph & East Tennessee Telephone Company, AT&T is technically one of the oldest continually operating companies in Knoxville today. A reference of some of the oldest companies in Knoxville puts AT&T, technically operating in the city since 1882, at number 5 on a list of all companies.

Please check in tomorrow for part two on the AT&T Building for the rest of the story on this interesting building and its hidden potential for the city of Knoxville.

Comments

  1. I worked that building for 6 years and never knew the history of it. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Kaye Graybeal says:

    Great article on a building that I knew nothing about. Thanks Oren and Alan!

  3. Having retired from the “telephone” company several years ago, I really enjoyed this history filled article. I started with Southern Bell, as a Directory Assistance operator, in November of 1965. There was a cafeteria on the 3rd floor of the Magnolia Building, facing Depot Avenue. From a window there we could see the huge hole being dug for the next “new” phone building that would face Depot Ave. One piece of the AT&T name-change history that was omitted, were the years of “South Central Bell,” which preceded BellSouth.

    • Oren Yarbrough says:

      Thank You for commenting Ann! Sorry about the omission on the South Central Bell. I completely forgot about that phase of “Bell” development.

  4. Jonna Hall says:

    Appreciate Knoxville Urban Guy for the Inside Connection and history along with excellent photos! Oren, Thank you so much for the History and photos to go with the very interesting background story.

  5. Awesome historical note on Knoxville’s local telecom infrastructure! Thanks for sharing, Oren!

  6. Michael W Wright says:

    There is a very similar building between Rankin, Walnut and Lexington in Asheville. NC Probably designed by the same firm. Southern Bell moved from there to O’henry Ave in the 40s

  7. Thanks for writing this! I work next to this building and I’ve always wondered if anyone noticed the beautiful ornamentation around the windows on the sides that face Broadway and the empty lot. The intricacy is quite stark in contrast to the more modern sections of the building.

  8. Noel Kuck says:

    I had been told that the ATT building in Knoxville is physically the closest to any interstate highway in the country. True?

    • Oren Yarbrough says:

      I wasn’t aware of this theory. Someone else mentioned a Guinness Record for how close the building is to the interstate. I couldn’t easily find a source to confirm this claim and I am not sure if it is true or a local folklore. I know of buildings in other countries like Japan that literally have major interstates running through them. If anyone knows more I’d love to find out!
      The building is definitely only like a couple of feet from the interstate and when you pass by on 40 the corner of the structure at first appears to be damaged or pot-marked, but when you look closer it is dozens of stickers that people have placed on the building by accessing the highway overpass.

  9. Oren Yarbrough says:

    A special Thank You to Alan for allowing me to use his Blog as a platform to share my interest and knowledge on this building. I am fascinated by our local historians and authors like Jack Neely & George Dodds and I think the work Alan and all of these men do to share knowledge about our local community is so valuable. I hope you enjoy this brief history lesson and look forward to the second part of the discussion tomorrow.

  10. Great story, look forward to more. I’ve lived here my entire life and recall that even during the 1960s the “phone building” could best be described as “grim” when driving by it on the interstate. That’s back when Southern Bell, aka Bellsouth, was the phone monopoly here in the area. Some other landmarks one would see while traversing near the old malfunction junction in the same vicinity were a large ice cream/milk factory (PET or Sealtest?), the infamous Admiral Benbow Inn, and more. All gone now. While many of those were not worth saving, the impacts of the interstate on downtown cannot be understated as you say. One thing you can say about this building is it is a survivor. Again, really nice article!

    • Hollybethyname says:

      There was an Admiral Benbow Inn in Memphis as well. Also infamous!

      • Per this link, the Benbow was still here in ’77. I think the “Pierce Parkway” may have gotten wiped out when the interstate was reconfigured, but the reference “I75 and I40 interchange” equates to “malfunction junction”. The building looked a lot like those pictured at the link. Not a historic part of Knoxville history, but worth a memory all the same….off topic I know. Sort of fits the motif of “things perceived as unattractive by the interstate”.

        https://cardboardamerica.org/2017/02/02/admiral-benbow-inns-1977/

  11. Wonderfully informative contribution. Thanks, Oren! And, thanks to Urban Guy for providing the venue for its publication. I look forward to the next installment. If there is something that can be done to “fix” this building, I can’t wait to see what is proposed.

  12. Great research, Oren. I just took a virtual “walk” along the W. Magnolia Ave side of the original building and I’m astounded at how close one of the interstate’s support arches stands next to the building’s NW corner facade, with what looks to be no more than a couple feet to spare. How the heck they built that part of the highway without disturbing the building is beyond my ken. Looking forward to seeing your building usage idea, tomorrow.

  13. Shannon Kelley says:

    Oren: Terrific article. Well researched. I’m looking forward to the 2nd part.

  14. I actually toured the AT&T building when I was a co-op with Bellsouth in 2001. It is considered a Central Office (CO) where basically everyone’s telephone (hard line) lines run to for call routing. The place is super secure for security reasons and there are no windows. That means it is very dark and creepy! The lights are on very short timers and follow your movements around the alleys of telephone switching equipment. I remember noticing huge ceilings, like 15 foot at least and just rack after endless rack of switching equipment. I also remember the seeing some nice ornamentation around the ceiling and other walls that would go along from a building of that era. The other crazy thing that I saw was an ancient backup battery for when the power failed, had to be from the early 1900’s. There were these huge tubs of liquid acid and suspended above them were these metal sheets (Zinc/Copper) so that when power was lost the system would drop the metal sheets into the acid and it would create a battery to power the telephone system (48 volts DC). Obviously they don’t use that now, they have a modern battery system but I asked them why it was still there, and it looked like the acid was still in the tubs. I was told it was too expensive to move or clean up so they just decided to leave it there! Has anyone else on here been in the CO more recently?

  15. Love learning about Ktown & your Insights are so valuable.
    I enjoy reading all your fantastic show notes on history too.
    Thanks for all your time energy & effort in your researching everything. It’s a valuable service that you provide.

  16. Aaron Thompson says:

    Oh man, what a great article! I’ve seen the NOLa building many times at Tales of the Cocktail. It’s absolutelu gorgeous!

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