Monday, April 9, 2012

Mystery Butt-Fugly Building of the Week-- April 9th

AT&T Communications Building (aka Telephone Exchange Building)

500 South 27th Street

Outdated aerial photo from Bing Maps.
                          This is one ugly motherfucker. A big brick and black-glassed behemoth right on the South Street Bridge and blocking an entire segment of waterfront from the public... it just doesn't fucking belong. Where the hell did this thing come from and why did they put it there?
                          The corner of South Street Bridge and 27th Street has always had a tough break. In the olden days, nasty-ass industrial buildings were located here along the riverfront. They were noisy and smelly in all the worst ways. The location that this ugly motherfucker sits on had a massive dairy (with a Dairy Museum!) and a Furness-designed Iceworks, across the street from a residential block. Once they were closed, the abandoned buildings left behind became bigass crime magnets. Then, as a final insult, this shitty building was plopped down right here, completely out of place with its surroundings. I guess NIMBYism wasn't really in style in this neighborhood at any point in the past.
                        The origin of the building not a mystery. The building was constructed in the early 70's, designed by the firm of Ewing, Cole, Erdman and Eubank. It was the spawn of the Bell Telephone Company. They called it the Telephone Exchange Building and it housed the most advanced automated switchboard system in the world...

Early rendering
                        So they put it at 27th and South? How big did they need this thing to be? Compared to all the blocks surrounding it, its HUGE!! Rumor has it that the long distance trunk line may run along the freight train tracks that run alongside this thing, and that's why a big automated switchboard went here. Anyone out there know if that's true? Also, the building's useless. Automated switchboards were obliterated by the creation of the microchip, so only a few years after being built, this facility was already obsolete. At some point later on, AT&T moved in, putting a big-ass logo on the building visible from University City. That's pretty much it.

Here's how it looked when it was first built, before the AT&T logo.
                           This has to be one of the worst ways a modern building meets a residential street in Philadelphia. The front entrance to the building is hidden behind a plaza that is hidden behind the corner of 27th and Lombard. The side of the building that faces 27th Street is a massive dark wall of glass and metal, looking more like a sci-fi prison than a technologically advanced building.  No matter how many large trees are put in front of this thing, it overwhelms the street with its abundant amounts of ugly.

27th Street sidewalk with Deathwall in the background. Image from Google.
                       So the mystery remains... Why build a behemoth tech building in this neighborhood? Why so fucking ugly? and What the fuck!!?!?!?!?

                            Hello, this is John McLaughlin, and you ah now reading this in my voice. It ends up that the trunk lines DO follow the freight tracks, and that's why the building was placed in this location. It wasn't much of a residential neighbaah hood at the time. BYE BYE!!!

*Thanks to Philaphiles Bob Bruhin and Unknown for the info!!!


  1. This was far from a residential neighborhood in the early seventies. In fact, as late as 1995 most of the surrounding waterfront was dominated by things like publishing companies and power generation. In the face of this reality, placing such a building here was actually a forward looking move.

    Of course, I still agree that what passes for forward looking when it is the early seventies doesn't exactly look very pretty now.

    1. Er, not sure how you can say it's far from a residential neighborhood. The house we live in on 27th street is over 100 years old, as are most of the houses around here. Of course, for much of the time it was a poorer neighborhood, perhaps that kept it off the radar.
      -- mcget

  2. The reason for the location was, without question, it's proximity to the trunklines that run along the train tracks. There are other buildings in that area that serve as major datacenters due to that proximity. And, yes, when it was build, no one envisioned the residential renaissance seen in that area. The same could be said for industrial buildings across the Northeast, University City, Kensington, etc.

  3. They haven't needed a building full of switch gear for years, but a lot of people still show up there for work every day. Pretty sure it is an NSA / CIA / Homeland security spying station.. its the only logical explanation.

  4. Looks like it could support a big skyscraper on top. Or maybe a prison. Boy, that would be the icing on the cake for the this monstrosity, ay?

  5. Bell Tel switching buildings are usually pretty interesting. There used to be loads of them. Every neighborhood had one. Each filled with operators 24/7, women who put through your call just like in the old movies.

    Eventually by the 1950s, technology replaced the operators and the buildings were only filled with machines, not people. Unless things have changed since I worked across the street (probably has), the gorgeous Bell building at 17th and the Parkway has only machines not people.

    Other interesting ones are Chinatown's at 9th and Arch and Mayfair's at Wellington and Charles. Frankford's was pretty coollooking with a rounded facade. Located on Orthodox St., it was abandoned before the 1990s and then eventually worn town. The one for the Far NE on Roosevelt Bvld is a pretty sharp looking newer building.

    Not only have most these large buildings lost their need for people, the machines they contain keep getting smaller.

    Regarding this one, the entrance was probably hidden on purpose. Other than the few post-operator era workers, who needed to go in?