The most photographed phone booth in London sits in front of Big Ben. The number of beloved crimson "telephone boxes" in the United Kingdom has fallen sharply in recent years, from 92,000 in 2002 to just 48,000 now.
The most photographed phone booth in London sits in front of Big Ben. The number of beloved crimson "telephone boxes" in the United Kingdom has fallen sharply in recent years, from 92,000 in 2002 to just 48,000 now. Ari Shapiro/NPR
People in the United Kingdom are racing to save a beloved icon, in a mission that in some ways resembles efforts to save the giant panda in China, or the polar bear in the Arctic.
But this icon isn't threatened by habitat loss or climate change. The problem here comes from companies like Apple, Samsung and Nokia.
"Mobiles have taken over," laments Mark Johnson, the man in charge of pay phones for BT (formerly known as British Telecom).
People below a certain age may not even know what a pay phone is: Think great big cellphone that lives in a box on the street. Drop a coin to make a call.
In London, the crimson red "telephone box" is a revered icon, as much as the black taxicab or the double-decker bus. But people still ride black cabs and double-decker buses. Pay phones haven't fared as well: Calls from them have dropped 80 percent in the past five years.
"In 2002 we had 92,000 pay phones," Johnson says. "We've now got 48,000 on the street."
I stood with him in front of the most photographed booth in all of London, the one right at the foot of Big Ben.
"Everybody comes up to it. They have a photograph with Big Ben in the background. And a lot of them are holding up the mobile phone to their ear rather than making a phone call," he says. "I wish everyone that used this made a single call out of it, because it would be absolutely the best-used kiosk in London."
Box Lounger, on display here in Central St. Giles in London.
Though most people rely on cellphones, not pay phones these days, the telephone boxes aren't obsolete. During an art exhibit in summer 2012, artist Benjamin Shine transformed one into a work called
Though most people rely on cellphones, not pay phones these days, the telephone boxes aren't obsolete. During an art exhibit in summer 2012, artist Benjamin Shine transformed one into a work called Box Lounger, on display here in Central St. Giles in London. Dave Catchpole/Flickr
But just because they're no longer useful as phones doesn't mean they're completely obsolete.
In towns all over the country, Johnson has pulled phones out of the booths so locals can transform them into all sorts of things.
"Libraries, art galleries, notice boards, school projects. We even had a pub in one for one night, which was called the Dog and Bone," says Johnson.
Not many people fit in that pub, he confesses.
"Just the barrel of beer, and they were serving out of it," Johnson says.
Software developer Laurie Young is a Londoner who admits he hasn't used a pay phone in at least 15 years. But if they were to disappear?
"It would definitely be a big loss," he says. "Like losing the Empire State Building from New York."
A few thousand of these phone booths are actually listed on Britain's register of historic places.
An ATM has been installed in this phone box in Stratford-Upon-Avon, shown here on Aug. 12, 2012.
An ATM has been installed in this phone box in Stratford-Upon-Avon, shown here on Aug. 12, 2012. Nelo Hotsuma/Flickr
That's partly thanks to a group called the 20th Century Society whose mission is to preserve 20th century buildings.
It may sound like a stretch for a group that focuses on buildings to preserve phone booths. But the group's director, Catherine Croft, says there's a really good reason for it. The phone booth's designer was a man better known for cathedrals, bridges and power plants.
"I guess most people would perhaps assume it was a product designer or a furniture designer maybe, but no," says Croft. "Giles Gilbert Scott was a really important British architect."
Croft took me to inspect one of Scott's smaller works in a historic market the other day. Up close, the booth has echoes of an ancient temple: fluted columns down the sides, a low curved dome at the top.
"And that's very deliberate," says Croft. "He was a scholar of classical architecture."
Inside, the booth feels a bit less dignified. There is a puddle on the floor, and a funky smell. Hidden in the dark of that booth, about 7 feet off the ground, is a small plaque. It's almost unreadable. The inscription says: "This telephone as designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott is a listed building."
Fortunately, we were able to read the plaque's writing by the light of a cellphone.