UPDATE: Last Call for Phone Booth

Monday, April 14, 2008

It was a Washington monument of sorts, one of the last known working phone booths in the region and one of only a handful left in the United States.

Now it's history.

Verizon Communications dismantled the phone booth in Arlington County this year. Its remains were thrown into the back of a truck and hauled to a Verizon storage facility. All that's left at 10th and Irving streets in Clarendon is the concrete base on which it stood for decades.

"We took it out because the volume of calls was very low," said Sandy Arnette, spokeswoman for Verizon. Officials said late last year that about five calls a day were being made from the booth. "Economically, that kind of volume just doesn't make much sense."

So far, no museums are calling.

There was no public demand to keep or restore the booth to its 1970s glory for posterity, Arnette said. It wasn't much to look at -- crooked, pocked, missing a front door and a plastic pane or two. But still, there it was, available for calls, the kind of booth Superman used to sneak into.

The booth is down but not out, Arnette said. It could be reassembled. "Sometimes we get requests to use them in movies. So that could happen," she said.

Once a fixture on street corners, phone booths have largely disappeared from the national 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 one by a sniper, and the "Superman" movies.

No public phone booths have been put up in years. They've been replaced by pedestal-style pay phones, which are easier to maintain, take up less room, meet national standards for accessibility by the disabled, and are less conducive to crime or likely to collect trash.

The booths started disappearing in the late 1980s as cellphones gained popularity, officials said.

Even pay phones without booths are ending up in the trash can of history. There were more than 2 million pay phones in the United States in 2000, according to the Federal Communications Commission. By 2006, the number had plunged to just more than 1 million. During that time, the number of cellphones in use in the country skyrocketed from 90.6 million to 217.4 million, according to the FCC.

Today's hippest phone booth is actually no phone booth at all. Some upscale hotels and restaurants have installed luxurious rooms designed for cellphone users who want somewhere quiet to make their calls.

"They're soundproof, gorgeous rooms with leather walls and opulent decor," said Margaretta Rothenberg, a manager in Verizon's pay phone division. They're called "non-phone phone booths," she said.

Superman would not be pleased.

-- Daniela Deane

© 2008 The Washington Post Company