Even as a young boy I was fascinated by the ‘Telephone Building’ on Commerce Street in downtown Kingsport. Maybe I should say “buildings” and “corner of Commerce and Main”.
The complex of yellow brick, almost windowless buildings always struck me as a bit eerie. I couldn’t help wondering what was inside. I can only find old news reports of how interior spaces looked from the 1930s to the early 1980s.
But next weekend I’ll try to see what’s inside the phone building today. It has become residential, as have several other buildings closely linked to the town’s history in Kingsport town centre.
Tickets remain available for the Downtown Kingsport Association’s Downtown Loft Tour, a fundraiser for the organization that has proven popular in recent years. The 2-5 p.m. event, scheduled for Saturday, is sponsored by Eastman Credit Union and gives ticket buyers entry to eight lofts in six different buildings.
Two units in the telephone building are included in the tour.
When I saw this on the list, I started looking for information about the history of the Telephone Building. I knew at one point it was on the usual bill-paying route for most people in town: phone bill there; “light bill” to the electric company (now HomeTrust Bank on Church Circle); water bill at the town hall; and if you had cable when I was young, you could pay your bill just with Five Points.
I also knew that at least two people close to me worked there even before I was born.
My first cousin (maternal) Mae Wallen Willis worked as an operator for United Intermountain Telephone for four years in the early 1960s. She even boarded with mom, dad and my two siblings for a while. I know it was around the early 1960s when Mae was working at the telephone company because my brother Keith, born in 1959, is legendary for wanting to accompany every time Mae got in the car when he was a little kid.
Sometimes he would rush into the car when she was trying to leave for work. He would go to the other side of the passenger side. She had run to the passenger door, and he had rushed to the other side. One time he exhausted her and she was already late so she just got on and drove downtown with him standing in his usual spot by her side.
She led him past the telephone building, said it was time for her to be inside, and took him home. Once there, satisfied with the ride and the attention, he dutifully got out of the car and left her to work as “Hello Girl”.
This is, I learned, what the operators were called back then. Mae said she still remembers working with the technology then in use, which included unplugging and plugging the cords of the various connections onto the big switchboard. After Mae married her husband Wayne and moved to Columbia, South Carolina, she made a career in the telephone company there.
The second former operator I know is Zula McCullough, the longtime song leader of my childhood church, West View Primitive Baptist. Zula worked in the Telephone Building on Commerce from 1956 until 1984, when operations moved to Johnson City. She also moved and worked for the telephone company until her retirement in 1990.
Mae and Zula fondly remember Thelma Stokes, their chief operator when they first started in the Telephone Building. Keith was said to have almost caused a flaw in Ms. Stokes’ hiring philosophy – she had told Mae that she had always enjoyed hiring people from rural areas in southwestern Virginia, as they usually turned out to have a strong work ethic and good manners.
Stokes, I learned, retired in 1967 after 39 years with the telephone company. She had been a cinematographer since 1941.
As for the Telephone Building itself, I found front-page coverage of its grand opening in 1930. The newspaper from that day included several smaller stories and several congratulatory advertisements from other companies. The lead article was one of the most comprehensive descriptions of a building’s interior I have ever read. There was even a subsection on toilets.
Incidentally, at the time it was the Inter-Mountain Telephone Co. And the “magnificent new structure” was described as “one of the finest in the city”. What I call the yellow brick, was then described as “buff”. Estimated cost: $75,000.
The model city? In the 1930 article, Kingsport is referred to as “that, the Magic Town of East Tennessee”. And back then, operators had to respond with “Number, please”.
The telephone company existed for six years prior to the construction of the building on Commerce. By 1924 the company had 596 telephones in the system, 2,980 local calls per day and 85 long distance calls per day. By the time it celebrated its 25th anniversary in 1949, the company had 9,301 telephones in the system, 74,408 local calls per day and 1,686 long distance calls per day.
On her retirement day in 1964, a longtime operator said at first that it could take days to make a call in Asheville – compared to around three hours at the end of her career.
In that time frame, you can visit eight lofts in downtown Kingsport on Saturday.
Lofts vary in style, size and location, each designed and decorated with varying tastes and budgets. Several include stunning outdoor living spaces.
The lofts of the tour:
• Perdue Loft on Main Street.
• Cherokee lofts on Cherokee Street (Creech loft and Vicars loft).
• Duncan Loft on Center Street.
• The Telephone Building on Commerce Street (Millican loft and Shapiro loft).
• Jenkins Loft on Market Street.
• Dixon Loft on Cumberland Street.
Tickets are $25 each in presale (plus processing fee) and $30 each (plus processing fee) if purchased on the day of the visit. To purchase tickets, visit: www.downtownkingsport.org. On the day of the visit, tickets can be purchased at Branded, 124 W. Main St. from 1:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. in cash or by card.
Online ticket buyers will receive a tour map, complete with addresses, with their tickets. Buyers on the day of the visit will receive a card with their tickets.
The visit will take place rain or shine. Tickets are non-refundable. No children 12 and under allowed. No animals of any type are permitted on tour.
No smoking, vaping or tobacco products of any kind. No food or drink is allowed during the tour. Not all areas may be easily accessible or complain about ADA. Many properties have steep stairs. Visit at your own risk.