Art on Call

An empty emergency call box located near Dupont Circle.

An empty emergency call box located near Dupont Circle.

What the heck are those things?

That was my first reaction to the uniquely shaped posts (but more than posts) I would see scattered around the city. Likely the first one I saw was like the one here: interesting looking, but obviously missing something.

However, then I saw others elsewhere in the city, and someone had decided to actually do something with these dignified relics from another era. Some had historical information about the neighborhood, like these from my neighborhood of Cleveland Park. It was sometimes what used to be in that spot when these things were installed, and sometimes just facts about the neighborhood.

In other parts of the city though, just art was installed:

So, what were these things, and who did them? After some digging, I found out that 

Police and fire call boxes were installed throughout the capital starting in the 1860s. They began to become obsolete with the introduction of the 911 emergency call system in the 1970s, and the working electronic components were all removed by 1995. Yet the call boxes remained, too large and heavy to remove yet subject to deterioration from weather and vandalism.

The Art on Call initiative began in 2000 when the city surveyed and identified call boxes for refurbishment. More than 1,100 abandoned boxes have been located to date. The District Department of Transportation stripped, primed, and prepared about 700 boxes in 2002 and 2003.

Sorry, but that's just cool: rather than spending the time to dig up pieces of the city's history, Cultural Tourism DC partnered with the city and neighborhood organizations (including the one where our offices are located) to turn these boxes into something interesting and relevant: there's something fascinating about turning something once incredibly useful and then irrelevant into something relevant if not useful again. I would say that having things in a city that makes the daily commute a little more interesting is useful, at least for me.

So, keep your eyes peeled for the hundreds of call boxes around the city and share any that you find particularly interesting.