Inspired by the switching operators that once worked within our site, by the facility's history of erasures both physical and symbolic, and by Xenia S. Miller's transformative influence on the city, our project, XX, connects and reveals invisible stories, particularly those of Columbus’ women. An engaged community process will solicit ideas, stories and memories channeling their power into a welcoming and revelatory temporary landscape that opens onto its surroundings. Over the course of the summer, we will work with the community to plant a nursery, build a platform for shared experience, and stage a series of community-inspired events.

Agency Landscape + Planning was formed by landscape architect Gina Ford and planner Brie Hensold to address social equity, cultural vitality, and environmental resilience through design excellence, strategic planning, and community empowerment. Though the practice is young, its principals have deep experience.

While at Sasaki, Ford and Hensold confronted disaster and climate change through the Cedar Rapids Flood Recovery Planning project, working with that community to plan for long-term sustainability and resiliency. Their partnership was further forged through their participation in the Rebuild by Design competition, a two-year examination of the post-Hurricane Sandy landscape. Ford led Sasaki’s work on the ten-year Chicago Riverwalk project, a built landscape that showcases the big ideas that now shape Agency. In founding Agency, Ford and Hensold have deepened their commitment to a socially-minded, diverse, and creative practice focused in the public sector. Agency is currently leading the White River Vision Plan, a year-long strategic plan for 58 miles of the White River in Indiana.

Image Credits: Chicago Riverwalk; photo by Christian Phillips Photography. Rebuild by Design – Agency Landscape + Planning; Sasaki Associates.

"Columbus is made of modernism. A philosophy more than a style, modernism, (much like Agency’s socially-motivated mission), was fueled by a compelling sense of optimism and aspiration. It is an idea that what we design can be beautiful while also making people’s lives - and, in fact, collectively society’s lives––better and healthier. It is a belief that design is a tool for humanity to live its highest ideals."

The AT&T Switching Center sits at the northwest corner of Seventh and Franklin Streets, on Lot 10 of the Sims and Mary Finley Addition to the original plat of 1821. For most of its existence, the site remained occupied by a single house, built in 1877 by Josiah Beatty for his wife, Emma Swisher. It was built in the Queen Anne style, tall, with large large bay windows that faced the Presbyterian Church completed across Franklin Street in 1875. For decades, Beatty’s house was one of the most expensive ever built in Columbus. Fred Donner, a local jeweler, purchased it and since that time, it became known as the Beatty-Donner House. The corner of Seventh and Franklin was home to increased activity in the early 20th century and became a favored site for development. For example, in June 1906, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill authorizing $15,000 for the construction of a new federal building in Columbus. Sid H. Nealy, member of the Washington Architectural Club and inspector for the United States Department of the Treasury, visited Columbus in November 1906 and briefly considered the Newton Property near the Beatty-Donner Residence as the site for the new building. James Knox Taylor’s Columbus Post Office and Federal Building was built on the corner of Washington and Seventh Streets in 1912. The lot across Seventh Street remained empty until a National Guard Armory was erected there in 1925.

Although the areas around the site began to grow and develop, the site remained untouched until the Presbyterian Church purchased the Beatty-Donner House. Indiana Bell acquired the property in the 1940s and replaced the house with a three story yellow brick building with tall ceilings. Metal bars covered the small windows, through which one could see the dozen or so Indiana Bell employees operating the switchboards. Later, during World War II, and with the construction of Camp Atterbury on the outskirts of Columbus as a training facility for bomber pilots, Indiana Bell began to create new switchboard facilities that could handle the increasing volume of telephone calls. Whereas their facility at Camp Atterbury was more outfitted for local calls, the Indiana Bell plant in Columbus became a node connecting phone lines between Indianapolis and other cities in the region.

With the development of long-distance calling and mechanical switching in the decades after World War II, buildings like the Indiana Bell plant became less and less common. Indiana Bell’s facilities may have become more centralized, yet smaller buildings such as that on the corner of Seventh and Franklin remained useful for storing the electromechanical and eventual optical networks needed to supplement the main telephone trunk lines in the Midwest. These were no longer buildings for accommodating employees: they became residences for circuits, switches, and wires. As such, they required a different approach than that normally used for other kinds of buildings.

In 1978, Indiana Bell commissioned Paul Kennon, principal of Houston-based Caudill Rowlett Scott, to create a switching station that incorporated the old plant and added improved ventilation and technical access from street level. Kennon, the former director of the School of Architecture at Rice University and AIA Fellow, had already established professional roots Columbus. He had worked in Eero Saarinen’s office with Kevin Roche from 1957 to 1964. He also completed two buildings in Columbus: the Columbus Signature Academy, Fodrea Campus (originally Fodrea Elementary School, 1973) and State Street Bank (1974). Both of these feature a formal purity and dedication to polychromy that would culminate in Kennon’s design for the Indiana Bell Switching Center.

For this project, Kennon added a one-story addition to the Indiana Bell plant, wrapping the entire building in material and vegetal layers that give architectural meaning to what the literary critic Leo Mark called “The Machine in the Garden.” At street level, the building appears as a large, city block-sized cube covered by a mirrored curtain wall that roughly follows the envelope of the old Indiana Bell plant. Kennon also placed metal trellises draped with vines on the south and east facades. When viewed through the pear trees planted in front, the effect is not unlike that produced by the floor-to-ceiling windows at Saarinen’s Irwin Conference Center. Kennon’s material flourishes give passers-by an image of their city reflected onto itself, appearing through layers of trees, leaves, and vines. On the west facade, abutting the alley that separates this building from the Old Post Office, one finds this building’s most distinctive feature: the nine floor-height air ducts painted in a spectrum ranging across yellow, orange, pink, red, and blue. These are part of the new ventilation system designed to protect the electrical and mechanical equipment inside from overheating. Playful yet austere, they appear to rise from a giant underground pipe organ or technicolor calliope without betraying that, if anything, this building is more like a machine than anything else. Indeed, the project was once known as "Building 37X ESS."

The following decades have not been kind to Kennon’s building. Because of corporate restructuring and other developments in the telecommunications industry, the building passed through several hands. First known as the Indiana Bell Switching Center, it became the Ameritech Switching Center, the SBC Switching Center, and finally, and most recently, the AT&T Switching Center. Changes in management also meant that the building fell under a fair amount of disrepair and poor maintenance. The building invited much unwanted bird traffic and the light reflected from the exterior sometimes damaged the vines and pear trees. Eventually, the most of the trellises and vines were removed and the trees were cut down.

Today, Kennon’s AT&T Switching Center is a reminder of how architecture can be emboldened through the thoughtful applications of material effects. And when considering how it is located next to the rear facade of the Old Post Office along Seventh Street, we are reminded that this part of the city was once a communications exchange, a place where buildings from two different eras, each dedicated to the transmission of cards, letters, and electrical signals, coexisted peacefully, broadcasting to the world outside Columbus.

Site History written by Enrique Ramirez