Call Box Project

Art on Call

Kelsey & Associates has served as the continuing exclusive contractor to the non profit Cultural Tourism DC managing its popular Police and Fire Call Box restoration and rejuvenation project since its beginning in 1999. This program involves the coordination of over 250 volunteers in nearly 60 different and distinct Washington, DC neighborhoods to transform the formerly abandoned callboxes and turn them into a true neighborhood icon with a combination of high quality art and historical components. Its the only project of its kind in the nation! Elaborate fire call boxes like the one to the right are believed to have been first installed in Washington in the 1860s. They complimented a large system of gas street light illumination, first installed in the city streets in 1848. The peak of gas illumination was reached in 1926, when there were 12,371 gaslights burning in the city. Fire call box 17 at left was installed at 4 ½ Street, SW, and was typical of these early designs; a round cast iron base with a tall lamp post atop which concealed a gas burner. Red glass with etched white lettering was illuminated from behind with a constantly burning gaslight. They were manufactured by the Gamewell Corporation of Newton Falls, Massachusetts. The pedestal designed for Washington is called a "Nott" base and was the original pedestal used for holding Fire alarm box; it was painted black with the alarm box painted red.

This type of box required the sender to break the glass, turn the key and open the door, then pull down hook inside to transmit the alarm to a central alarm office where the box number was tapped out on a bell, flashed a red signal light, and punched out its number on a paper tape register much like a stock ticker. There was also a telegraph key and sounder inside each box, which the chief, or chief’s driver could use to order a greater alarm or all-out fire signal to the central alarm office.

A 1923 decision to convert the gaslights to electric was gradually enforced over the following decade, and the last three gaslights were turned off on June 23, 1934. However, many gaslight bases may have been retained with the lamp pole cut off approximately four feet from the ground and a Fire or Police call box welded on top of the ornate base.

Each fire alarm box had a spring wound movement like an alarm clock which, when the box was pulled, sent in four rounds of its location code number to the central alarm office. The first call boxes installed Washington in the 1860s were apparently painted black, and always kept locked. A sign over the box on the pole notified where the key could be found, usually at a corner grocery store or other retail establishment. Each key was numbered and trapped in the door until the department arrived so they could see who opened the box to send the alarm. Starting in the late 1880s the color scheme changed when Police boxes were introduced, which were painted blue, and the Fire call boxes painted red.

By the mid-1890s when the cables were placed underground in conduits, they started using ornamental iron posts to mount the boxes, and possibly the older gas light bases. By the late 1910s DC began using a telephone handset, which plugged into the box for voice communication with the alarm office operators, such as the one above pictured here at 7th and Indiana Avenue, N.W. By the early 1930s newer boxes were used which added a quick action door on the front - the user simply pulled down the door and pulled the hook to send in the alarm. Not all fire boxes were located on cast iron bases, as many were mounted on the sides of buildings and even trees, wired from above, as seen at right at 15th and G Street, N.W., in 1914.

Most Police and Fire call boxes had a simple pole and protected light on top, which was constantly illuminated to aid public and police in locating the boxes at night. Fire call boxes provided a protected switch for residents and pedestrians to pull in the event of a fire, signaling the department in a central dispatch office that a fire had been spotted in that particular block. These boxes were painted red, identified with a number, and featured an orange light on top. One of the fire boxes was illustrated in the December 14, 1946 Washington Daily News, pictured at left. Boxes were apparently manufactured by prisoners at the Lorton Correctional Facility.

Police call boxes, on the other hand, were sealed boxes that a patrol officer would use a key to enter and flip a switch to notify a central command center that his patrol was proceeding as normal and that no assistance was necessary. Police officers pulled a different box switch on their patrol route every thirty minutes. It also featured a telephone that officers could use to communicate problems to the central command. Their patrol routes were called "Carney Blocks" after an officer that devised the system, with the overall effort coined the "Patrol Signal System" or "PSS." The Police call box was painted blue, and illumination of the light at night provided an officer the location of the box in case of emergency when they needed to call for backup. Each box had a number affixed, and Policemen quickly identified problem areas in neighborhoods by the unique call box number. All early police boxes were on party lines so the cop would have to pull the box lever to identify which box he was at on the circuit. There was also a pointer in the early boxes for Ambulance, Paddy Wagon, Riot, Fire, etc., so special signals could be sent in. The front door had a citizen’s key, which by inserting the key in the door, a wagon call could be sent in for accidents, etc., by a passersby.

Paul Ponzelli, a retired police officer, recalls call boxes in Georgetown having heavy rings affixed to the base in which occasionally an officer might handcuff a suspect and use the phone call the central command center to send a car to take the individual to the station, all the while continuing his rounds. Ponzelli also revealed that two call boxes were executed in polished brass, one being located in front of the White House, and one being at Union Station. That one was used by Roosevelt when his train arrived at the station to signal the White House that he required a motorcade to the executive mansion. The box remains in a private collection. A 1941 ad for an Exide system featuring a Gamewell box appears below.

Throughout tenure of the PSS system, the yearly City Directories recorded detailed annual statistics. In 1926, it reported information on the 1,500 Call Boxes extant that year such as total number of calls, false alarms, number of boxes wired from above or from underground, number of fire and police responses, and the number of call boxes added each year.

Many other cities had call box system manufactured by such companies as Gamewell. Several different styles of bases and boxes were made but were individually designed for that particular city. San Francisco still operates a call box system with both the police and fire boxes attached to a single pole, illustrated at left. The early gas light poles and call boxes in some cities like NY and Boston had the operating instructions etched in the red glass atop the box. Washington DC is on of very few cities that have any remnants of the system left in the original location on the streets.

In most cities, walkie-talkies and car two-way radios caused the initial downfall of the police and fire boxes. The call boxes in Washington were maintained by the Department of Public Works with many remaining in use until 1976, when the 911 system of emergency contact was established in the city. Most of the police and fire call boxes were abandoned after the 1968 riots, when civil unrest destroyed many of those in the affected areas, and others were continually used for false alarms.

Paul K. Williams
March 2002

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Call Boxes Brochure (pdf format, 198kb)