Step Inside, and Back in Time, and Dial Away

The cockeyed relic waits for a caller, or maybe Superman, on North Irving Street in Arlington's Clarendon area. About five calls are placed daily.
The cockeyed relic waits for a caller, or maybe Superman, on North Irving Street in Arlington's Clarendon area. About five calls are placed daily. (By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
By Daniela Deane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 22, 2007

It's missing a front door and a plastic pane or two. The phone books are long gone. But there's still a dial tone, and you can still make a call.

It's a Washington monument of sorts, the last known working public phone booth in the region and one of only a handful left in the United States.

Even in this everyone's-got-a-cellphone era, people step into the 1970s booth in Arlington County several times a day to make a call. Officials at Verizon Communications say about five calls a day are made from the booth in Clarendon, which is just like the kind Superman used to duck into.

But time might be running out for this relic. If the phone booth needs replacing, it's, well, history.

"If it gets knocked over, somebody runs into it with their car, or it needs to go for whatever reason, we would not bring in a different phone booth in its place," said Margaretta Rothenberg, a manager in Verizon's pay phone division.

Once a fixture on American street corners, phone booths have largely disappeared from the landscape, despite a lingering nostalgia for them in Hollywood, as evidenced by such films as "Phone Booth," a 2002 thriller about a man trapped in a booth by a sniper, and the "Superman" sequels.

No new public phone booths have been put up in years, officials said. They have been replaced by pedestal-style pay phones, which are easier to maintain, meet national standards for accessibility by the disabled, take up less room and don't attract trash -- or crime.

"There are still a few public phone booths around the country, but not many," said Christy Reap, a Verizon spokeswoman. "There's one on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where the community lobbied us to keep it. There's a few classic ones in some historic towns in Pennsylvania, a few on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and a few on the Jersey Shore. Here in the Washington area, that's the only one, as far as we know."

About a dozen hidden, private phone booths are in St. Mary's County in Southern Maryland, built by Mennonite families for their personal use for religious reasons.

Phone booths are being built -- but without phones. They're called "non-phone phone booths," and they are designed for cellphone users, Rothenberg said.

"They're soundproof rooms, gorgeous rooms with leather walls and opulent decor, where you can go make a call on your own phone," she said. "We're seeing this in restaurants, in upscale hotels. The Biltmore in New York has one. It's driven by what works best for customers."

Phone booths started disappearing in the late 1980s as cellphones gained popularity, said Willard R. Nichols, president of the American Public Communications Council, a national trade association for pay phone operators.

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