Abandoned telephone exchange in Ohio

Marion County Telephone Company Building, Marion Ohio
Date added: March 30, 2023 Categories:
South elevation, looking northeast (2006)

Built in 1916, this was the first building in Marion built specifically to house telephone operating equipment and company offices (Marion County Telephone Company). As such, it served the local community initially, then the county, the region, and ultimately the state as a telephone communications center for approximately 60 years.

Following earlier surveys, the village of Marion was platted in 1822 by Eber Baker and Alexander Holmes. It was named after the county of Marion, which was formed in 1820, but remained under the jurisdiction of Delaware County until 1823. The county was reconfigured again in 1848 into its present size. Marion has been the county seat since its founding. Beginning in the 1870s Marion started to develop as a manufacturing center. The city grew steadily from its humble beginnings with 382 residents in 1830 to a population of 3,899 by 1880. Marion's fortunate central location ultimately traversed by five different railroad lines made it an ideal city for the manufacture of products, due to the ease with which they were then shipped across the country. By the turn of the twentieth century, numerous manufacturing concerns were located throughout the city representing multiple industries, the majority locally owned. As a result, profits stayed in the city and Marion was known to have a higher rate of home ownership than cities of similar size. The population in 1907 had reached nearly 20,000, and by the 1920 census, it was 27,891.

Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone and patented the telephone's technology in 1876. The National Bell Telephone Company was formed in 1878, which was succeeded by the American Bell Telephone Company only two years later.

Because there was no infrastructure in place for telephones, considerable capital was needed to make telephones a useful means of communication. Telephone exchanges were supported by subscribers. Investing in the infrastructure was necessary in order to subscribe more users, thereby creating more demand for the telephone. Investment in telephone equipment continued to be needed as telephone technology evolved and improved. The large investment of capital required to support the telephone systems in the early twentieth century came "largely from the stockholders of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company who now number over 360,000, from stockholders of Associated Companies, and from the sale of bonds and notes." (Ohio Bell Telephone Co.)

Typical phone company staff included managers, telephone operators, and plant chiefs. The general infrastructure needed for operating a telephone system involved telephone poles, conduit, man holes, switchboard/operating room, plant with switching equipment, and a business office. The early switchboards were run on a battery system. Wires were originally carried on roof structures, which were later replaced by telephone poles. When the load of the copper lines got too heavy for use on telephone poles, some communities, Marion included, changed from the use of poles to a system of interspersed underground bunkers.

The American Bell Telephone Company largely had a monopoly on the telephone business in the United States due to the various patents obtained by Bell on his ever-evolving invention. Many people were unhappy about the lack of competition and believed phone subscriptions would cost less if there were competition. Additionally, American Bell Telephone predominantly served larger cities focusing services on businesses and the wealthy. Once Alexander Bell's patents expired in 1894, the door was open for small independent phone companies to be established using the Bell Company's technology. The independent, also known as "non-Bell", companies rapidly sprang up in small communities and rural areas. "By about the end of 1915, there were some 5,300 Bell exchanges serving 6 million telephones, and 16,000 independent exchanges serving 4.5 million telephones."

By the 50th anniversary of the telephone's invention in 1926, the number of telephones in the United States had increased from 1 to 17,000,000.

Zanesville was one of the first cities in Ohio to have telephone service. Other cities that claim the distinction are Dayton and Cincinnati. By May 1879, a telephone exchange was operating in Zanesville, and in 1880 a telephone company organized there.

Marion's venture with telephone communications followed soon after Zanesville's. The first telephones came to Marion by private vendors in 1882. The Central Union Telephone Company was listed in the city directories on Center Street from 1895-1908. The Marion County Telephone Company was formed in 1900. The company was locally owned and had many prominent citizens serving on its Board of Directors, including Warren G. Harding. At the time of his service on the board, Harding was serving as an Ohio Senator (1899-1903) or as Ohio's Lieutenant Governor (1903-1905). Harding served on the board for several years, at least through 1912, the year before he was elected to the U.S. Senate. Both companies operated telephone systems until 1908 when the Central Union Telephone Company was purchased by the Marion County Telephone Company.

From 1902 until this new modern facility was constructed in 1916, the telephone company had its exchange or switchboard operation at the Masonic Temple, in the commercial block to the north of this building. Although the Marion County Telephone Company does not appear in the city directory until 1909 (at the Masonic Block location), a 1902 map of the telephone conduit system in Marion identifies the switching station in this same block as does the 1908 Sanborn Fire Insurance map. (Marion (Ohio) Planning Department) The building at 197 S. Main Street was built by the Marion County Telephone Company in 1916 and was designed specifically as a telephone company plant. Automatic telephone equipment was installed in the plant in 1917 by the Automatic Electric Company of Chicago. At the time of this building's construction, the Marion County Telephone Company was the sole telephone company in operation in Marion. Although the company's name implies countywide service, there were parts of eastern Marion County that were not served by this telephone company.

In reference to the 1916 facility, a 1922 profile of Marion's utility companies in the Marion Daily Star noted that the Marion County Telephone Company was "operating one of the most modern telephone properties in the country." (p.12) The article further noted that the "plant was visited by telephone engineers from all over the United States, as well as by government engineers from many European and South American countries." In 1922, the telephone company logged 20,000,000 calls annually and had 51 employees including 16 toll operators.

Beginning in the 1920s, the telephone company underwent a series of acquisitions and mergers. Marion County Telephone Company was acquired by Ohio Associated Telephone Company in 1927, providing service to Marion, Green Camp, Morral and Waldo, all surrounding communities within Marion County. The Ohio Associated Telephone Company merged with the Ohio Cities Telephone Company of New Philadelphia in 1931. The merger created a larger company with phone exchanges in different parts of the state. As a result the new company moved its office headquarters to Marion because of its central location, keeping the name Ohio Associated Telephone Company in the process. By the time Ohio Associated Telephone Company had relocated its headquarters to Marion in 1931, it had acquired nine local phone companies within a four-year period.

Ohio Associated was part of Associated Telephone Utilities, a utilities holding company based in Chicago. Formed in 1926 Associated Telephone Utilities immediately began an aggressive acquisition campaign of which the Marion County Telephone Company was a part. The 1920s saw a large number of small phone companies bought out by larger ones due to the changes in telephone technology and the inability of the small companies to afford the latest equipment. Associated Utilities changed its name to General Telephone Systems when it moved its headquarters to New York City in 1935.

Ohio Associated continued to grow rapidly. "By 1933 its operations encompassed 52 exchanges located in 19 Ohio counties serving 22,039 telephone stations." (Ohio Northern News) Ohio Associated became a statewide affiliate of General Telephone in 1940. At this time the number of exchanges had increased to 56 with 30,000 phones. For the next decade, Ohio Associated was a division of the General Telephone System's Eastern Operating Group based in Erie, Pennsylvania. The third floor of the headquarters building was added in 1949, reflecting the growth of the company and the industry, accommodating more employees and the increase of required telephone equipment. The number of phones had more than doubled to 70,000 with 136 exchanges since the beginning of the decade.

In order to more easily identify with the parent company, state affiliates had their names changed. In 1952, Ohio Associated was renamed General Telephone Company of Ohio. General Telephone Systems became General Telephone & Electronics in 1958 to reflect the company's broader business enterprises. Following the success of the previous decade, the 1950s was a booming decade for General Telephone of Ohio.

Clare E. Williams, vice president and general manager of Ohio Associated beginning in 1947, became president of General Telephone of Ohio in 1952. He tripled the size of the company from 1947-1962.

Donald C. Power also was instrumental in nurturing this Ohio growth. As attorney for the Ohio Associated Telephone Company ca. 1946, Power addressed head-on the post-World War II backlogged regulatory process for applying for rate increases from state regulatory commissions. "It was no accident that the first rate awards to General Telephone companies in 1946 were granted to a number of exchanges in Ohio. ...Power became an expert in the analysis of telephone company wages, operating expenses, property replacement costs, and the cost of raising money for expansion of telephone services." (McCarthy, p. 21) It was Power who created the breakthrough in the legal framework and set in motion General Telephone of Ohio's business strategy of acquiring small rural telephone companies that proved to be successful. Power was hired as the national president and chief executive officer of General Telephone in 1951.

Post-World War II, the headquarters building continued to play an important role in the development of General Telephone of Ohio. Throughout the 1950s all internal communications came from the executive offices in Marion and a monthly magazine for employees was published at the building. "In August, 1954, the distinctive General System trademark was adopted and General Telephone Company of Ohio was the first System telephone operation to use it on a telephone directory." In 1955 there were 1,275 employees statewide of General Telephone of Ohio and in 1956 General Telephone of Ohio installed its 100,000" telephone, with the 200,000" only three years later. In 1958, "General of Ohio's services embraced over 25% of the geographical area of the state in 70 of the State's 88 counties." (Ohio Northern News) Engineers from the Ohio divisions came to the company headquarters in Marion for their training. A c.1955 company summary indicated that the headquarters building also housed the largest telephone exchange (13,500 stations) operated by Ohio General.

Probably due to its growing prominence in the telecommunications industry, General Telephone of Ohio sponsored two communications supervisors from India in 1955. The sponsorship was part of the Point Four program under the United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Apprenticeship. The men spent three weeks in Marion studying the operations of the phone system. Although they spent nine months in the U.S., their only experience in Ohio and the telephone industry was in Marion and Lima.

General Telephone of Ohio continued to acquire smaller phone companies into the 1960s. The need for a larger headquarters building was soon evident. The unassuming downtown building that began as the local Marion County Telephone Company Building ultimately housed the Ohio headquarters for General Telephone & Electronics (GTE) until 1964. Once a state-of-the-art facility, the building at 197 S. Main Street had finally become outdated, and GTE moved into a newly constructed building on the south side of the city. Even after the Ohio General offices moved to 100 Executive Drive, the "white castle", 197 S. Main Street continued to serve as the Division Offices for GTE into the late 1970s. By 1972, the company had quickly outgrown the "white castle" and built an even larger complex east of the city.

The Marion County Telephone Company Building represented the telephone communications industry locally from 1916 to 1927, countywide from 1927 to 1932, regionally from 1932 to 1940, and ultimately as General Telephone Company of Ohio's statewide headquarters from 1940 to 1964 and GTE Division offices until the late 1970s. General Telephone Company of Ohio was the largest independent phone company in Ohio into the 1980s. City directories throughout the 1950s summarize Marion's role in telephone service throughout Ohio. "At Marion are located not only the local but district and general administrative offices of the General Telephone Company of Ohio, which provides service in 62 counties in Ohio." By 1961 it was serving 70 of the 88 counties in Ohio. The building served as the company's Ohio headquarters from when it became an affiliate of General Telephone Systems in 1940 until its move to a new facility in 1964.

General Telephone of Ohio (locally referred to as "Gen Tel") was one of the major 20th century employers in Marion. Others included the Marion Steam Shovel Company (later Marion Power Shovel Company), the Huber Manufacturing Company (Huber-Warco Company), the Whirlpool-Seeger Corporation (later RCA Whirlpool, Whirlpool Corporation), and the Erie Railroad (Erie Lackawanna Railroad). General Telephone was the only technology-based company among them.

General Telephone of Ohio recognized its role as an important employer in Marion. A 1954 newspaper advertisement for an open house at the Telephone Building illustrates the relationship between the community and the company. Momentous events in the history of Ohio General took place while the company was still based out of 197 S. Main Street. On January 20th, 1962, Marion and General of Ohio saw the five millionth telephone installation of the General Telephone System. Another milestone occurred the following year, when the company's phone system became 100 percent dial operated.

By 1964 when the company moved to the new headquarters building, it had surpassed rival phone companies within the state. "Today, General of Ohio is the result of mergers and acquisitions involving 52 large and small telephone companies. It has grown to be Ohio's largest independent telephone company, company official's note." (The Marion Star, "Marion Phone Center for 32 Years", July 24th, 1964) The importance of General Telephone of Ohio within Ohio's communications trade was outlined in a profile in the Indiana General News, the Indiana counterpart to Ohio General. "General Telephone, still under the leadership of Mr. Williams, continues to be one of Ohio's fastest growing industries....It serves about 32 percent of Ohio's land area, more than the Bell System in Ohio." In 1965, other Ohio independent telephone companies included the Lorain Telephone Company (Lorain), the Mid-Continent Telephone Corporation (Elyria), the Northern Ohio Telephone Company (Bellevue), the Ohio Bell Telephone Company (Cleveland), the Ohio Telephone Service Company (Greenville), the Telephone Service Company of Ohio (Lima) and 58 single exchange companies.

Building Description

The Marion County Telephone Company Building is located 1 ½ blocks south of the county courthouse in Marion. Main Street is one of the primary north-south streets in the city and is heavily traveled. An empty lot and a used car lot are south of the building, and an alley to the north separates it from the neighboring commercial buildings. Across S. Main Street from this building are a parking lot, commercial buildings, and a historic church. The surrounding commercial buildings range from intact historic structures to heavily altered ones. The buildings in this vicinity generally have little or no setback from the sidewalk. The Marion County Telephone Company Building has small sections for landscaping on either side of the entry.

The Marion County Telephone Company Building is a three story 3 bay by 8 bay rectangular industrial building of fireproof construction built in 1916. Originally constructed as a two-story enframed block type commercial building, a third story was added in 1949 in response to the change in telephone communications technology, the community's growth, and the growth of the General Telephone Company of Ohio. The 1916 building has concrete framing, floors and roof. The added third floor has masonry load bearing walls with clear spanned steel trusses for the roof. The building's exterior is faced with dark red wire-cut stretcher bond brick. Red tinted mortar is used on the front (east) and north elevations. Rhythmic projecting stepped piers capped with stepped stone ornament adorn all four sides. The front elevation and eastern bays of the side elevations have more ornamentation than the remainder of the building. These additional details include header brick panels in the spandrels above the openings in the first floor and geometric stone ornament at the base of the piers and atop the third floor facade windows. Also, the windows in these areas are paired. A flush plain stone cornice caps the facade and wraps around the corners. A flat brick parapet tops the front wall and a stepped brick parapet the back. The building has a king course brick water table and smooth stone ashlar raised foundation. The front entry is surrounded by plain stone trim and approached by a concrete stoop.

The south elevation has a single door side entry and a steel platform for mechanical equipment. The north elevation is parallel to the alley and similar in configuration to the south elevation. The rear (west) elevation has two pedestrian doors and access to the freight elevator. A brick elevator equipment room with a stone cap sits atop the roof.

Originally, there were 3/3 light double hung steel sash windows on all sides of all floors. A majority of the window openings were bricked in ca. 1965, when air conditioning was installed, with the exception of the front elevation, first and third floors. General Telephone of Ohio paid particular attention to detail when modifying the openings in this headquarters building that was transitioning to division offices. These details included the matching of the color and size of the brick and mortar joints and adding decorative header brick details in the facade inserts. Most windows that were filled in were the same double hung type as those existing in the third floor today. The front elevation first floor windows, however, had been changed from 3/3 to 2/2 light double hung windows, perhaps when the third floor was added. These windows were changed again to 1/1 and then, after 1972, bricked-in. Recently, the first floor facade openings were uncovered revealing the 1/1 window frames and sash in place. The stone lug sills and stacked header or king brick surrounds (depending on the opening) of the original window openings remain intact. The third floor fenestration on the side and rear elevations is more irregular than that of the original first two floors. Basement window openings have been in-filled with concrete block.

The building's interior has a functional open plan with structural round columns with "mushroom tops" evenly spaced on the first two floors and in the basement. A few brick curtain walls divide the interior spaces. Modern office partitions, dropped ceilings and floor finishes (linoleum and carpet) have been added throughout. Sections of linoleum flooring remaining on the first floor can be seen in historic photographs. An original brick freight elevator is located off center on the rear (west) wall.

One progressive aspect of Marion's telephone system was their underground system of telephone conduit. Reflecting this, there is a large vault in the basement level along the north wall, where the underground lines come into the building. Remnants of the conduit system are also found in the janitor's closet on the second floor. None of the telephone company equipment is extant in the building.

Marion County Telephone Company Building, Marion Ohio Marion Star article (1922)
Marion Star article (1922)

Marion County Telephone Company Building, Marion Ohio Photograph (1953)
Photograph (1953)

Marion County Telephone Company Building, Marion Ohio Photograph (1953)
Photograph (1953)

Marion County Telephone Company Building, Marion Ohio Entry detail photograph (1953)
Entry detail photograph (1953)

Marion County Telephone Company Building, Marion Ohio Photograph (1972)
Photograph (1972)

Marion County Telephone Company Building, Marion Ohio Open house invitation, Marion Star (1954)
Open house invitation, Marion Star (1954)

Marion County Telephone Company Building, Marion Ohio Facade, looking west, with south first floor window removed (2006)
Facade, looking west, with south first floor window removed (2006)

Marion County Telephone Company Building, Marion Ohio Facade, looking west, with both first floor windows removed (2006)
Facade, looking west, with both first floor windows removed (2006)

Marion County Telephone Company Building, Marion Ohio Detail of first floor window after brick removal (2006)
Detail of first floor window after brick removal (2006)

Marion County Telephone Company Building, Marion Ohio Detail of third floor window (2006)
Detail of third floor window (2006)