You’ve driven by it a million times: the reddish brown brick building on the northwest corner of NE 24th Avenue and Stanton. As I’ve researched this building and its history over the last two years, I’ve spoken with neighbors who’ve thought it was once maybe a school, a brewery, a home for wayward youth: all understandable given its institutional look and size.
Originally referred to as the Garfield Telephone Exchange, or the “Garfield Office,” this building is still functioning today for its original purpose: making sure telephone calls get connected to the right place at the right time.
When it went into full operation in 1924, the building housed telephone operators at switchboards plugging incoming and outgoing calls to and from individual circuits that served homes in Irvington and Alameda. One operator remembered that some of her colleagues and supervisors wore roller skates to help them move quickly from switchboard to switchboard.
Today, the hallways and rooms are quiet except for an omnipresent electrical hum, the quiet clicking of switches doing the job of the former operators, and the soft buzz of fluorescent lights. No roller skates, no operators, in fact it’s uncommon to find anyone in the building at all anymore.
Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company first rolled out the need for a telephone exchange building in 1919, and chose the location at NE 24th and Stanton because of its strategic location in this growing area of Portland. But early residents did not like the idea of a semi-industrial/commercial building being located in the heart of a residential neighborhood. Building codes and land use ordinances at the time were permissive and allowed the project to move forward. But influential residents of Irvington petitioned Mayor George Baker and Portland City Council to tighten restrictions, which they did on January 14, 1920, throwing a monkey wrench into project planning for Pacific Telephone and Telegraph.
Engineers for the company were stung by the new restrictions—which allowed residents to object to projects—and complained that the new public involvement processes were going to set back development of the new technology.
The Oregonian reported on January 15, 1920:
The action of the city council yesterday, according to W.J. Phillips, commercial manager of the telephone company, will upset the entire plan of development outlined for the next 20 years in Portland…he fears that the entire future service may be impaired.
Forced into reckoning with the neighborhood, the telephone company reluctantly agreed to work with a committee of neighbors to refine designs for the telephone building. Noted Portland architect A.E. Doyle, an Irvington resident, helped lead the committee and eventually won design restrictions which were reported in the April 15, 1920 edition of The Oregonian as follows:
With these restrictions in place—and with designs emerging that showed the attractive architectural details we see today—the neighborhood dropped its opposition and the project proceeded. Building permits were issued and construction followed, completed by Portland building contractor J.M. Dougan and Company at a cost of $123,690.
Trying hard to reach out to the community with a message of progress, Pacific Telephone purchased an advertisement in The Oregonian touting the new facility and mentioning the $1 million total project cost, which included the complicated and costly miles of phone cable buried throughout the area that culminated at and connected into the building.
As Portland’s housing boom produced more demand for phone service, complaints began to mount against Pacific Telephone and Telegraph about the speed at which they were responding to the growing need. In several news stories in 1921 and 1922, phone company officials were quick to point the finger of blame for these complaints at the Irvington neighborhood for slowing down progress on the Garfield Exchange and causing a ripple effect of delay throughout Portland. The building finally went into full operation in January 1924.
Even after construction, and the cables installed, residents still needed to be trained how to use the new phone equipment. The blizzard of news stories about the Garfield office and the Irvington delays (more than 15 news stories on the subject from 1920-1924) finally quieted down in late 1925 when everyone settled into using their phones, and trying to keep up with the changing technology.
Several minor additions have been made over time, and obviously complete technical overhauls have been made inside. Two houses to the north of the building were razed to make room for today’s parking lot. Despite these changes, the conditions outlined in the 1920 terms pretty much hold true today.