words by Mark Schweitzer, photos by Charlotte Gintert
It was the boom before the bust.
Akron in 1929 — before the stock market crash in October of that year — was truly a city on the rise. The 1920s had seen Akron continue its impressive industrial and population growth, adding another 50,000 people to its population. Downtown, ramshackle industrial buildings and Victorian-era structures were cleared away to make room for sleek, modern-looking Art Deco buildings, many of which still grace the city’s skyline.
Most people who live in Akron know these buildings well, and many of the greatest examples of this architectural style can be seen on or around Main Street. They include the Central Tower (now the Huntington Building), Mayflower Manor, the Beacon Journal buildings (both the original on Market Street, now the Summit Artspace, and the current building on Exchange Street) and the old YMCA.
Less well known—probably due to its location—is the former Ohio Bell building, now the AT&T building, on Bowery Street. It sits tucked into the quiet space behind the tall PNC tower and the soon-to-be completed Bowery Project, perched on the eastern edge of the old Innerbelt. The original structure was much obscured by a newer 1960s addition.
When the Ohio Bell Building was being constructed in 1929, Akron had almost 42,000 installed telephones. The massive conversion to a city-wide dial service was in the works, expected to cost more than $6 million by the time it was complete. Obviously, no one knew that a stock market crash was imminent; the Central Tower was being built just a few blocks away, the Akron Times Press building was under construction, and Polsky’s was about to break ground.
In September of that year, the Akron Beacon Journal ran a story about the Ohio Bell building’s construction manager, W.J. Shirmer. It focused on the unique construction details of the project and its innovative ventilation system, no doubt designed to accommodate the phone system’s massive switching equipment as well as its employees. Shirmer has first earned his spurs as a young construction manager for W. B. McAlister, whose firm built Stan Hywet.
According to Shirmer, the nature of the site made it necessary to place a four-foot-thick concrete pad as a floating foundation underneath the structure, which cost them extra time. Nevertheless, the 500-man construction crew was still on track to complete the building by Jan. 1, 1930. Ohio Bell employees would be able to enjoy a spacious auditorium, comfortable “club quarters” and the very newest elevators to reach each of the 7 floors. The building’s structural concrete work was designed to eliminate interior wall plastering, which was said to interfere with phone service.
On the exterior, the building presents solid, massive block, highlighted by vertical piers dividing the narrow strips of windows and decorative trim in between. It’s a common feature seen in many Art Deco-era buildings and helps lend interest to its general shape. The top floor retains this essential design feature, but is set well back from the structure’s outer edge — so much so that it is barely visible from the street.
While the exterior is fairly regular overall, notable details around the street-level windows and main entrance help raise the building’s appearance to a higher level. Ornate stonework, including sculptures of a telephone handset and the Bell System logo, can be found on the Bowery Street entrance. These provide a nice contrast with the tall fluted pilasters on each side of the central doorway, which is set back and framed in highly decorative metalwork. Similar metalwork can be seen on the inner doors, which are visible through the vestibule.
Since modern phones don’t require nearly as much of the massive switching equipment as older systems, it’s probably safe to assume that much of the building’s space originally devoted to that purpose has given way to computer servers. Likewise, dozens of human operators have given way to automated assistants and recordings, so it’s possible that a fair amount of square footage now goes unused.
In Cleveland, an even larger Ohio Bell building is being partially converted to a Hilton Hotel; perhaps someday Akron’s building may find creative reuse as well.
For now, it holds down the fort at the corner of Bowery and Quaker Streets, looking strong, solid and reliable — just like you’d expect your phone service to be.
Mark Schweitzer is a lifelong Akron resident and proud of it.
Charlotte Gintert is an archaeologist by day and a photographer by sunrise and sunset. You can check out her photos at www.capturedglimpses.com and follow her on Instagram at @capturedglimpses.