The Jay Street-Metrotech neighborhood of Brooklyn doesn’t attract many architectural tourists, but hidden amongst the new high rise apartments, hotels, and budget stores of the Fulton Street mall, there are still gems to spotted for the discerning visitor.
One such diamond in the rough is the old New York & New Jersey Telephone Company building. Founded in 1883, the company was the local service provider for Alexander Graham Bell’s original Bell company. Serving the rapidly expanding population of Long Island, Staten Island and upper New Jersey, as the demand for more and more telephones grew so did the company. In 1897 they moved into their new head offices, on the corner of Willoughby and Lawrence streets in downtown Brooklyn. With offices and an operator driven switching exchange, their new HQ was a gilded age beauty. Designed by Rudolphe Laurence Daus, a product of the Ecole des Beaux Arts, the building is a wonderful example of the age when a telephone switching exchange was built to be beautiful in its own right. Eight stories high with a curving copper cornice elegantly defining the corner of Willoughby Street, Daus’ building wouldn’t look out of place in an upscale turn of the century arrondissement in Paris.
But Daus gave the building its own subtle dash of style; if you take a closer look, the exterior is decorated with telephones. Whereas most beaux-arts buildings favored plants and motifs from the natural world, Daus carved in terra-cotta patterns of handsets, ear pieces, wires, bells and even candlestick telephone sets of the period.
The New York & New Jersey Telephone Company would eventually be consolidated into the New York Telephone company and eventually AT&T by 1984. Its prestigious office and switchboard were sold off, and is currently occupied by a college specializing in computer programming. However the telephones are still there, subtly curling their way unnoticed over the building on the corner of Willoughby street, much as they were nearly 120 years ago.