Historic Downtown Call Boxes Are Now Mini-Museums To Famous Women
Eight call boxes in downtown D.C. now house the stories of women who made history in the city.
Local artist Charles Bergen retrofitted each call box with a cast-iron sculpture of a notable woman and a plaque that tells her story, then repainted the structures in bright colors. Some of the call boxes also have metal sculptures on top that symbolize the subject's accomplishments.
"In D.C., while there are lots of sculptures of men and allegorical sculptures of women, there are not many sculptures of actual, real women that you can put a name to," Bergen told WAMU when he received the commission last year. The $177,000 project was organized and funded by the D.C. Commission on Arts and Humanities and the DowntownDC Business Improvement District.
Bergen worked with urban historian Mara Cherkasky of Prologue DC to select women to profile. They landed on eight women from a variety of fields including music, education, journalism and community activism. Interns from the city's Marion Barry summer youth employment program helped out with the designs.
The cast-iron call boxes were part of an early emergency alert system that dates back to the 19th century, before telephones and two-way radios. They're still all over the city, but they haven't been in use since the 1970s.
The D.C. fire department began installing red call boxes around the time of the Civil War. If a person saw a fire, he or she would break the closest call box's glass, open a door, a pull a fire alarm lever that would trigger a series of underground wires to transmit the alarm to a central office. From there, a telegraph system would tap out the box number for an operator, who would then dispatch fire trucks to its location. Easy!
The police department followed suite in the 1880s. Police officers used blue call boxes to check in with their precincts.
In recent years a number of neighborhood associations and business improvement districts have transformed the call boxes into public art or historical markers. Bergen refashioned six call boxes on Rhode Island Avenue in 2017 with art themed to the neighborhood, and 145 call boxes got makeovers between 2000 and 2009 as part of a Cultural Tourism DC project called Art on Call.
Unlike the new call boxes, most of D.C.'s statues are of white men and people who are not from this region. Of the more than 100 statues in the District, about a half-dozen are of American women. Of those, only one depicts a woman of color — Mary McLeod Bethune in Capitol Hill's Lincoln Park.
The women featured in the project are: Alice Stokes Paul (14th St. and Pennsylvania Ave. NW), Alma Woodsey Thomas (13th and G St. NW), Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley (Vermont and K St. NW), Josephine Butler (14th and K St. NW), Katherine Graham (15th and L St. NW), Flora Rollins Molton (13th and G St. NW), Mary Church Terrell (14th and G St. NW), and Julia Ward Howe (14th and F St. NW).
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