At the corner of 14th and Curtis Streets sits a very palatial structure. Its architecture is quite unique—creamy, terra-cotta facing that stretches skyward over a terraced, American perpendicular style building dotted by reliefs of the blue Bell system logo.
With your head down, these small details of the building are easy to overlook. They blend into the urban patchwork of neighboring high rises. But if you do take the time to glance upward, you might realize there’s something different about this structure.
It’s a megalith to the history of the telephone.
A living relic of the pocket-sized mobiles we cannot live without today.
The Mountain States Telephone & Telegraph building was completed in 1929 right before the crash of Wall Street incited the Great Depression. Built to bring dial tone to Denver, the building’s reinforced floors are so thick that its 15 stories are closer in height to a structure containing 23 instead.
Extra strength was required to hold the roughly 5.3 million pounds of mechanical switches contained within when the building first opened. Inside, young men would scurry about, forming the city’s connections by hand. They wore the carpets thin as they plugged and unplugged cables from the switchboards at a dizzying pace.
At Denver’s infancy, the area around 14th and Curtis Streets was purportedly a camping site to native Arapahoe tribes and the location of the Pony Express corrals. When the new telephone building was erected, it dominated Denver’s skyline as a “homage to the power of industry and technology.”
The stately structure is now dwarfed by much flashier, modern skyscrapers constructed around it. Yet, the views from the inside are shockingly classic, in addition to housing one of Denver’s hidden gems.
A secret telephone museum
Out the Vice President’s office window on the 14th floor, there’s a sweeping view of the Front Range with landmarks such as Auraria campus and Elitch Gardens backdropped by foothills. Most of the 14th floor has been frozen in time, a collection of wood-paneled offices that smack of the lavish spaces corporate executives once inhabited.
And the Connections Museum is tucked away there, too. This secret nook overflows with telecoms history, from the earliest prototype of the telephone, to lineman’s tools, and mechanical artifacts like Eisenhower’s summer White House communication system with its red override button, which cleared the lines in case the President needed to make an emergency phone call.
Access to this clandestine museum is through appointment only with its caretakers, the Telecommunications History Group. They maintain not only the exhibits but also a massive archival collection that includes phone directories dating back to 1890, telephone company stock certificates, and over 80,000 photographs and slides.
It’s a staggering amount of data and information.
Fortunately, there’s an easy and immediate way for the curious to visit the Connections Museum—via their website, a labyrinthine virtual experience loaded with clickable info including that awesome photographic view from the Vice President’s office.
See for yourself
A quick visit to the building does not disappoint if you’re mindful that this is a privately owned, working office building. The foyer on 14th Street, across from the Denver Performing Arts Complex, offers interesting artifacts like Denver’s last remaining phone booths, vintage manhole covers (one of them square), and eye-catching murals by Allen Tupper True.
There are 13 Allen True murals in and around the structure, the most playful of which are just through the 14th Street revolving doors inside the lobby. These two allegorical pieces entitled “The Crucible of Science” and “The Wings of Thought” are framed by names of scientists and inventors whose work helped bring the telephone to fruition, including Michael Faraday, Ben Franklin, and Alexander Graham Bell.
Bell’s creation of the phonautograph while at MIT in the spring of 1874 was the epitome of mad science: a Frankenstein-like creation utilizing a real human ear (from a cadaver) attached to a lever which etched onto glass. The contraption effectively transformed sound into sketched patterns that inspired Bell’s breakthrough of the telephone two years later.
The importance of the Mountain States Telephone & Telegraph building is breathtaking because of the role telecommunication plays in our lives today. We are so heavily invested in our phones, a piece of technology inseparable from a great majority of humans, that we might miss this structure while walking by the theater district, glued to our screens.
For those willing to notice the details, and potentially make the effort to visit to this historic landmark, it’s a stark reminder of how far we’ve come in such a short time. The evolution of communication is getting faster and faster by the day.
But without its origins, the seeds of creativity planted by Bell and many others, where would we be now?
And where are we going tomorrow?
The New Telephone Building and Fifty Years of Progress. By The Mountain States Telephone & Telegraph Co. 1929.
Visit to Connections Museum. Feb 7, 2018.