Inside the ‘Wire Center’ That Connected Manhattan to the World
Back in the days when people used landline telephones strung together with copper wire, most calls into lower Manhattan passed through a 31-story art deco building at 140 West Street.
Behind its gilded doors lay the cables and switches that connected landlines throughout southwest Manhattan. Just a handful of people work there today, and much of the building is being converted to condos. But the copper wire remains. “You’d never guess in 100 years that behind that door is a telephone vault,” says Christopher Payne.
Payne is fascinated by obsolete technology and outdated factories. He’s photographed the last operating textile mill in New England and documents outdated mnemonic telephone codes for fun. So of course he’d take a look at Verizon’s wire room in Manhattan. “I had always wondered what was inside these buildings,” he says. “They’re stunning.”
In the heyday of copper landlines, Verizon employees worked on every floor of the building, which was designed for AT&T in 1927. Copper cables connected 200,000 telephones throughout lower Manhattan. But Verizon embraced fiber optic cables in 2001, and today copper lines maintained by just 15 people connect 46,000 landlines. Verizon sold everything above the 10th floor to a real estate developer two years ago.
Payne spent two days there in July. “I was like a kid in a candy store, especially with the older wiring,” he says. “They still have cable lacing! That’s a real long-lost electrician’s thing. It’s beautiful to see.” Although the building is quiet, the grand architecture and ornate design is a reminder of the enormous scale of the technology it once housed.
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