Documenting The Last Vestiges Of Yesterday’s Telephone Technology

Inside one of New York’s Art Deco telecom towers, Verizon has three generations of telephone infrastructure–from copper landlines to fiber optics.

The mammoth Art Deco Verizon Building in downtown New York, built in the 1920s for the New York Telephone Company, serviced over 200,000 landlines for decades in Manhattan. Today, the building has been almost completely turned into luxury condominiums. Parts are still occupied by the telecom giant, though, and there are entire floors filled with copper landlines–the last vestiges of the nearly obsolete telephone technology.


“Since people still have landlines, they can’t move everything all at once,” says photographer Christopher Payne, who visited the Verizon Building in March to photograph the physical infrastructure of a now largely data-based industry. An architect by training, Payne is fascinated with the glamorous old building that was designed to house telephone cables and internal telecom operations while still showing off the company’s wealth and prestige by virtue of its design. His series Verizon goes inside the telecom company’s “wire center” to document telephone technology and the way it has evolved over the decades.

Payne has an interest in documenting old industrial spaces no longer in use and in danger of obsolescence–from old M.T.A substations to 19th-century mental institutions. A couple of years ago, he received an email from a veteran of the telecom business who was familiar with his work, suggesting that he photograph the old copper landlines that are disappearing as they slip out of use. Payne wanted to pursue the project, but it wasn’t until the New Yorker took an interest in him that Verizon let him in the facility. Earlier this summer, after the New Yorker arranged access, reporter Raffi Khatchadourian shadowed Payne to the Verizon building to write a piece for the magazine.

Six Verizon employees took Payne through a restricted area, where he photographed cable vaults dense with thousands of copper wires inside hundreds of rubber cables. On other floors, computers for fiber optics had replaced the old cable vaults and switches, condensing the telephone technology significantly. Rooms with newer cables and switches were more colorful and better organized, and kept at a cooler temperature to maintain the technology. “New equipment tended to be more photogenic than the old stuff,” says Payne. He was less interested in showing the older equipment from a nostalgic point of view and more interested in depicting a continuum of technology as it has changed over the past half century.

But where Payne does tend to get nostalgic is when discussing the architecture of the Verizon Building and the other extravagant telephone company headquarters built in lower Manhattan in the early 20th century. He sees nuanced similarities in all the buildings–the way the bricks are patterned, and the building is set back from the street. The windows rise vertically up the building on the facade to give the impression that there are more than there actually are. These buildings were built to house these telecom operations, but the opulent lobbies decorated with mosaics and carvings showed a pride in the building’s function that Payne sees as lacking in modern architecture. “There’s a language to this typology,” he says. “I always thought that buildings built for a specific purpose at a specific point of time anchored to that time and technology.”

[All Photos: Christopher Payne/Esto]

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.