The Garfield Exchange: Landmark Sold

Update 2020:  Queen Anne Exchange apartment rentals

Published  10/18/17:  “Concerns over size, scope of Garfield Exchange plans,”
Queen Anne News

Posted Nov.  8, 2016:  The Garfield Exchange, which was designated a city landmark earlier this year, has been sold by the Seattle Public Library for over $3,000,000.  Located in a residential neighborhood opposite the Queen Anne Public Library, the building has phenomenal potential.

Posted March 13, 2016:  In these times when nearly everyone has constant wireless connection to the world by a smartphone, it is a wonder that some of us recall picking up a phone that had no dial or dial tone and hearing a ‘smiling’ voice on the other end ask, “What number, please?”

From 1883 and Seattle’s first telephones until the 1950s, every phone call whether local, national or international began with talking to an operator and asking for a connection.  In those days, every phone line was hard-wired to an exchange building where young women facing a long board connected incoming and outgoing phone calls manually.

PT&T switchboard 1902 (WSHS)
PT&T switchboard, 1902 (WSHS)

The earliest of Seattle’s local telephone companies included the Seattle Automatic Telephone Exchange, the Independent Telephone Company, and the Sunset Telephone-Telegraph Company (“Sunset”). Sunset was incorporated in Seattle in March 1883, providing phone service to 71 businesses and 19 residential customers with an installation charge of $25 and monthly service at $7 for businesses and $2.50 for residences.

Queen Anne originally had two exchange buildings where rows of young women under strict supervision sat all day at a switchboard and connected your telephone to the number you were calling.  The Independent Telephone Company operated in a building on the northeast corner of Mercer and First Avenue N.  The Sunset Telephone-Telegraph Company ran the second.  Their facility was built about 1905 at 1608 Fourth Avenue West, subsequently became Masonic Lodge #32 in 1923.  In 1900, Sunset had become part of a much larger Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company, but long after the merger everyone still called the company ‘Sunset.’

Sunset Exchange operator with supervisor 1905. (MOHAI)
Operator with supervisor, 1905 (MOHAI)

Within 20 years, Sunset and the women connecting all those 6,100 lines and 35,000 annual calls outgrew their exchange building, and the company built a new one diagonally across the street on the southwest corner of 4th W. and Garfield St.  Now that building, the Garfield Exchange, is being considered by Seattle’s Landmarks Preservation Board for designation as a city landmark.

The clever purchase by Pacific Telephone & Telegraph of the nearby vacant site of the Garfield Exchange in April 1920 meant minimal displacement of the telephone lines.  About that time and certainly no later than 1921, PT&T had become part of American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T), the national monopoly that eventually owned every telephone line in the country and provided all the equipment used on them.

If someone wanted everyone in town to be able to reach them, they had to have a telephone number, a different number, on each exchange.  This advertisement for the Seattle Taxicab Company shows that.

Garfield Exchange, 1923                            Garfield Exchange, 1936

Like a number of sister buildings constructed in Seattle and throughout the region at the time, the Garfield Exchange was “expressly designed to house the machine switching equipment.  It was commenced in May, 1921, and completed during the following September at a cost of $138,000” (The Seattle Times, 9.2.1923).  The Garfield Exchange first went into service at midnight on September 2, 1923, when it took over 6,100 lines from the older exchange office.  At that time, “Seattle subscribers [placed] half a million local telephone calls every day.  Thirty-five thousand of these [originated] in the Garfield district” (The Seattle Times, 9.2.1923).   Everyone served by the Garfield Exchange had a phone number like Garfield plus four digits:  e.g. Garfield 2615.  In 1956, the Garfield numbers became Atwater numbers with an additional digit such as ATwater 3-1234.  You can still see that number on a sign on Reed Wright’s heating business at 2212 Queen Anne Avenue North.  Eventually, the exchange names were dropped resulting in familiar numbers like 283-1234.

The Garfield Exchange building is u-shaped.  Its two arms are separated by a narrow courtyard that runs north-south and which is not visible from the street.  The Garfield Exchange was constructed as a one-story building on a basement.  In 1929, a second story was added to the first.  PT&T exchange buildings generally featured Beaux Arts and classical revival design elements.  Queen Anne’s building has a relatively more elaborate east facade, with a projecting entry porch with symmetrical opposing stairs, and an entry surround embellished by ornamental terra-cotta.  Constructed for heavy equipment use, it is made with steel and concrete framing and deep reinforced concrete floor slabs.  The Garfield Exchange was relatively fire-resistant with masonry cladding and concrete fire proofing.  Windows were typically large, wood-framed double-hung types.  The brick laid up in English bond with clever use of soldier courses is a noteworthy feature of this functional design.

The Garfield Exchange building remained in service through the early 1960s.  It was abandoned by its owner, Pacific Northwest Bell, in early 1967, as the company no longer needed the equipment and found that the “demolition costs and restrictive zoning offset the commercial value of the land.  After this initial appraisal … the phone company asked the Queen Anne Community Council to find a community organization that could use the building.  The council rejected several commercial ventures in favor of the library” (The Seattle Times, 9.6.1978).   PNB eventually donated the Garfield Exchange to the Seattle Public Library.  Until recently served as the library’s storage building.SPL 4th of July Parade Float, 1923

This distinctive building was designed to be architecturally compatible with the surrounding residential neighborhood which includes the Seattle Public Library’s Queen Anne branch and the Queen Anne United Methodist Church.   Over the last one hundred years, luxuriant landscaping and a heritage redwood tree have further softened the impact of the commercial building on the surrounding neighborhood.  Landmarked, who knows what the next 100 years will bring.*

This article is indebted to BOLA Architects for its work on the nomination to the city’s Landmarks Preservation Board.