Sunday, October 26, 2008
946 East Main: A tree now obscures a surviving fragment of a vanished past
There's nothing like a tree practically growing out of the front door of an old building to give it an air of abandonment. When I looked more closely at this old brick structure on Madison's East Side, it looked as if it had been built to last, probably early in the last century, and the detailing around the entrance suggested that it once housed a substantial enterprise. I peered through the windows and saw what seemed to be an empty warehouse space inside. I wondered about its history. The building looked abandoned, but it must have known better times. What sort of business used to call this home?
That's when I looked up through the trees at a different angle and saw the words Wisconsin Telephone Company, capped by a relief sculpture of a bell. As far back as I can remember, "the phone company" was always headquartered in one or another much larger building in downtown Madison, so this clearly dated to an earlier era. I felt a wave of nostalgia for the heyday of a great American institution, back when "Bell Telephone" still meant something; it had an aura of magic about it -- back before it gave way to changing times, antitrust law, technology and deregulation. The pieces of the old AT&T were broken up, recombined, and now our phone company is AT&T again. But there's no "Bell" in it anymore. And absolutely no magic at all.