What happened to the British phone booths that stood on the George Washington campus?
What’s happened to those two dark blue British phone boxes that until a couple of weeks ago stood on G Street on the George Washington University campus? They made me think of the TARDIS from “Doctor Who.” I always enjoyed seeing them and am sorry they’re gone.
The eye-catching phone booths were examples of the sixth— and most-widely produced— iteration of the British public telephone kiosk. The classic “K6 box”— for kiosk six— debuted in 1935 to commemorate King George V’s Silver Jubilee. Also known as the Jubilee kiosk, it came from the pen of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, the English architect wh ois also known for designing something a bit bigger: Battersea Power Station, depicted on the cover of the 1977 Pink Floyd album “Animals.”
But how did two K6s end up on the GW campus, painted in GW blue rather than British red?
Answer Man consulted the GW media office. Aspokesman said that the booths— one at 21st and G streets NW and the other at 22nd and G— were senior class gifts from the classes of 1998 and 1999.
Alex Espinosa graduated from GW in 1998 and was involved in raising funds for the senior class gift. The tradition of graduating seniors pitching in to buy a gift had started only recently at GW, he said.
“It was really a program built to get seniors to understand the philanthropy side of being a student,” said Espinosa, who worked for a while after graduation in fundraising for the university. “It was geared to get them to give and get used to giving.”
The hope was that, once exposed to the notion through something enjoyable such as a class gift, graduates would continue to support the university financially. If you went to college, you know how good they are at tracking you down for the rest of your life. Which is fine, of course. But a
British phone booth? That was the gift most GW seniors voted for in a slate that included a kiosk, a bench and a tree. How was it even on the ballot?
“I think Trachtenberg pushed it,” Alex said. That would be Stephen Joel
Trachtenberg, GW’s president from 1988 to 2007.
“He had a pretty big personality,” Espinosa said.
Trachtenberg remade George Washington University, academically and architecturally. And he had a thing for British phone booths.
“I think I myself had just returned from a trip to London,” Trachtenberg told Answer Man. “I was driving past the British Embassy here in town, and they had one out on the Massachusetts Avenue side of the street. I thought, ‘Oh, you can actually get those things.’ ”
Indeed. Companies in England still sell refurbished examples. You can get wooden replicas, too.
“We thought they would make interesting visuals,” Trachtenberg said. “Also, it’s always useful if you’re meeting somebody on campus to be able to give them a landmark, say, ‘I’ll meet you by the phone booth across from so-and-so hall.’ But you have to remember that this was before cellphones were as ubiquitous as they are now. They actually had phones in them.”
A university spokesman said he wasn’t aware of the booths having phones in them more recently. In any event, both boxes were removed over the summer, the materials recycled. Wrote the spokesman in an email: The “university is grateful for their presence on campus for more than 15 years. Since the time that they were installed, GW’s campus landscape has evolved significantly, and the phone booths were no longer consistent with the overall campus aesthetic. Maintaining them also posed a challenge.”
This fall, benches will go up where the phone booths stood, along with plaques commemorating the classes of ’98 and ’99.
“No one consulted me one way or the other,” Trachtenberg said. “But I had no expectation at the time we put them in that they were necessarily going to stay forever.”
Trachtenberg pointed out that eventually, everything— everyone— ends up getting recycled.
Keeping up with ‘Jones’
After last week’s column on the Belasco Theatre, Answer Man heard from someone with a personal connection to the playhouse, which once stood on Lafayette Square: Sheila Gregory Thomas, whose father,
Montgomery Gregory, was director of the Department of Dramatic Art at Howard University.
Wrote Thomas: “In 1921 he reached out to Eugene O’Neill to request that the celebrated African American actor Charles
Gilpin, who was the star of O’Neill’s production ‘ The Emperor Jones,’ be allowed to come to Washington to appear for one night in the Howard Players’ performance of ‘Jones.’ ”
O’Neill agreed. On the evening of March 28, 1921, Charles Gilpin performed as Emperor Jones with the Howard Players in the Belasco Theatre.
Wrote Thomas: “I do not recall hearing howmy father managed to book the Belasco, but I do remember hearing that it was probably the first occasion on which there was integrated seating in Washington.”
One of theGW-blue booths.