Strowger Switch + Purple Reign Redux

Roman Mars: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

We have a little different episode for you today but we have two stories, the first is an update to the Purple Hotel story, that was episode number 58 reported by Gwen Macsai. There have been some significant changes since we reported that story, so I want to update you on that. But first, I have a short story that I performed live on the radio on KALW in San Francisco very, very early in the morning but I’ve never released it as a Podcast so I thought I’d share that one with you today. Here we go.

Almon Brown Strowger was an undertaker of all things. Kansas City, Missouri got it’s first telephone exchange in 1878. Telephone service is good for local business and the funeral business is no exception. But at some point, Almon Brown Strowger of Kansas City noticed that he wasn’t getting as many calls from potential customers. He got really suspicious when a friend of the family died and he wasn’t even called about performing the funeral services. The story goes, and the story it’s really hard to verify but I’m going to go with it because I really like it. The story goes that after some poking around, Strowger discovered that the wife of a rival undertaker in the area was an operator for the local telephone company. At the time, telephones were connected manually by female operators, patching lines together on a gigantic punch board. Someone would pick up the receiver asking for the local undertaker in general or even Strowger in particular and in this case the unscrupulous operator would only connect the call to her husband’s undertaking business not the Strowger’s; and Strowger figured it out.

If you were Almon Brown Strowger, Kansas City undertaker there are a few ways you can go when you discover something like this. Number one, and it’s number one for a reason because it makes the most sense. You can contact the local telephone company and alert them about the dishonest operator in their employ, maybe even get her fired. Number two, you can take her and her husband to civil court, try to sue for damages or something. Or there’s always option number three, you can invent an automatic telephone switching system that allows people to dial each other directly eliminating any need for a telephone switchboard operator and thereby completely revolutionizing the entire telephone system forever. Almon Brown Strowger, the Undertaker, went with option number three.

He wasn’t the first to come up with the idea but his concept was the first automatic switcher that worked for more than a handful of phones within the system. He was awarded a patent in 1891. Of course, he didn’t know how to make the thing, he was an undertaker, if I haven’t stressed that enough already. Strowger conscripted his nephew and some business partners to help develop a working prototype. It cost more and took longer than anyone anticipated but they finally got it working and they finally got a chance to try it out in the real world. La Porte, Indiana became the first place to have automatic, operator free, telephone dialing. In a speech at the unveiling of the La Porte Telephone Exchange, the cantankerous Strowger addressed the issue of the “Hello Girls,” the operators who would lose their jobs because of his automated switch, “I’m often told the telephone girls will be angry with me for robbing them of their occupation. In reply, I say that all things will adjust themselves to the new order. Water will find its level. The telephone replaced the messenger boy as this machine now displaces the telephone girl. Improvements will continue to end of time, strike where they may.” The Bell telephone company eventually acquired the technology in 1916 and the “Strowger Switch” as it was called, became standard equipment throughout the 20th century.

Up next, I’m going to play you episode number 58 again, it’s called Purple Reign about the Purple Hotel reported by Gwen Macsai and then we’re going to have a really, really significant like 4 or 5 minute update about what happened to the Purple Hotel since this was first reported, so stay tuned for that.

This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

The hotel on the very prominent corner of Touhy and Kilbourn Avenues in Lincolnwood, Illinois used to be the town’s most famous building. The first Hyatt hotel in all of Chicagoland, premier accommodations, top-notch restaurant.

Gwen Macsai: It was swank. Roberta Flack stayed there….

Roman: Barry Mannilow stayed there….

Gwen: Perry Como!

Roman: Michael Jordan stayed there on his first night in Chicago.

Gwen: And every 13-year old boy in the area had his Bar Mitzvah there.

Roman: The hotel was built in 1960 and it looks it. So if you’re wondering how much potentially anachronistic lounge music I’m going to cram into this episode, oh, it’s going to be a lot.
Then slowly over time it became Lincolnwood’s most infamous building. It changed hands, got seedy and rundown.

Gwen: It was the home of the Midwest Fetish Fair and Marketplace Convention. There were drug-fueled sex parties attended by shady Chicago politicians later convicted of things like extortion and of course, there was the convicted mobster Allen Dorfman, who was gunned down in the parking lot.

Roman: But that’s not why everyone in the area knows the building. If you know nothing of its history its still pretty hard to miss.

Gwen: Because it’s………purple.

Roman: Really, really purple.

Gwen: Growing up nearby, I always thought it was really, really ugly; lots of people did. To be fair lots of people didn’t but everyone had an opinion about it.

Roman: But Gwen Macsai that’s who I’m talking to now by the way, noted SAS and public radio host and she even created a sitcom once, she has a secret about the Purple Hotel.

Gwen: My father designed it.

John Macsai: My name is John Macsai, I’m a retired architect and former professor at UIC. I designed a lot of–

Gwen: Just the building we’re talking about.

John: Don’t interrupt. [laughs]

Gwen: I don’t have time for the long bio dad.

John: Okay. I designed a lot of apartment buildings in Chicago.

Gwen: We’re here to talk about the Purple Hotel. I need you to say, “My name is John Macsai, I’m an architect. I designed this Purple Hotel.”

John: Okay. My name is John Macsai, I’m an architect and I was the designer of the Purple Hotel.

Gwen: Finally! Now, you have to understand that when I say the building is purple, I don’t mean the kind of purple of say, an iris, or a plum. It’s purple as in, lavender. Lavender, purple glazed brick all over pretty much the entire thing.

Roman: Which needless to say makes it stand out.

Gwen: Depending on how you look at it like a prized jewel, or a sore thumb.

Lee Bay: You know it’s one of the few buildings that if you see it once you’ve seen it forever. You can’t get the image out of your mind.

Gwen: It is so purple that after it changed hands the new owners renamed it, The Purple Hotel. WBEZ architecture critique Lee Bay.

Lee: I think that it’s worth looking at– absent the brick. The brick I like, but I wish you could sort of put on glasses that could filter it out so you don’t see the brick at least in one trip and really see how the building holds itself together structurally. I mean I think it’s really good the way that John was able to put those supports to the outside of the hotel to give larger floor plates in the middle which is what you want. You want big functional spaces inside of a hotel. And then again the little nooks of green space and the way the buildings kind of fit together, the [inaudible] fits together. I mean really there’s really lot of good things going on there. You know I say, come for the purple but stay for the architecture.

Jackie: The thing that everybody notices first including architects would be the color. I mean, I think that if anybody is saying that it’s not the color that they’re lying, because you can’t really look at the building without noticing that it’s purple. It’s the only purple building around but then after that initial wave of color hits you, you notice really what a great modernist structure it has and how the structure is expressed on the outside which is also not something you see every day anymore, and I think it’s a wonderful building.

Gwen: That was Jackie Koo, founding principal of the architectural firm Koo and Associates. We’ll get back to her in a minute but first, the story of why and how the building got to be so purple, my dad, John Macsai.

John: It was commissioned by the Pritzkers, a very rich family in Chicago. It was the first Hyatt hotel in the Midwest. It was called Hyatt House, had nothing to do with the purple. By the way, the purple came because one of the Pritzkers, A.N., the big man among the Pritzkers in the family asked me what color glaze style I want to use. I wanted to use gray and he said, “That’s dull, I like something brighter.” so I made a mistake of showing him the samples of books having on it some 35-40 colored samples and sure enough, he picked the purple. And you don’t argue with A.N. Pritzker.

Gwen: My father tells me this story but I suspect differently. He’s always gravitated toward bold color choices. Our current argument is over bright orange balconies in a building that we always pass, he loves them and I hate them. When I was growing up, his favorite color was blue, a color that to me is suspiciously close to purple. In fact, every house we ever lived in, brick bungalows, summer house in the woods, suburban barn shaped house with mustard colored siding, all had bright blue front doors, that my father painted. My elementary school bus driver used to call me “blue door”. Upon interrogation, my father coughed up his strange Hungarian logic.

John: In the Mideast where ultimately I come from, the blue color on the doors, blue and green is to keep the evil spirit away. So that’s the reason I always painted the entrance door of our houses blue, to keep the evil spirit away and it did.

Gwen: Do you think it worked for the hotel?

John: The blue was faint.

Gwen: So you don’t think the purple kept away the evil eye from the hotel?

John: Not really because there was a murder in the hotel.

Gwen: Actually, there were two, but I digress.

John: The beauty of that building is the exposed concrete frame, how the columns are pulled out of the structure showing this– it’s like a human being whose skeleton would be on the exterior partially. That would be weird, right? Well, that’s the building is, the columns are pulled out, the slabs are slightly pulled out. It’s a building which reveals a structure and that is architecturally the interesting thing about it. The purple is totally irrelevant. It could be green, okay? It would be the same good or bad building.

Jackie: As an architect, I have to ask you, this is a perfect example of what the difference between what the public sees and what the architect sees?

John: Oh, absolutely.

Jackie: Because the public sees purple brick, the architect is sitting here is saying the purple is so unimportant in the scheme of the building. It means nothing. It’s just such a tiny thing but to the public that’s all it is.

John: Exactly. That’s right because the public is ignorant. [laughs] Truly ignorant.

Gwen: Well, you can’t really argue with him there but in our defense, and I count myself as one of the public in this scenario, it’s really, really purple.

Roman: And despite how far the purple hotel fell from its original glory, the delapidation, the murder, the drug-fueled sex parties and a demolition order; it was not torn down.

Gwen: Time passed, the economy fell to pieces, mid-century architecture slowly came back into Vogue. Madmen was on TV. The purple brick was kind of retro-cool.

Roman: A light however dim was starting to shine on the building and its future.

Gwen: Then, the Purple Hotel was nominated for landmark status, a place on a historic registry. There was talk of finding a buyer, talk of renovation, and then while I was searching and interviewing for this very story, the Purple Hotel went up for auction.

Jackie: There was a lot of pomp and circumstance in the beginning of the auctioneer yelling and saying, “Are you ready?” in a booming voice and then really, there was only one bidder so. [laughs]

Gwen: And that bidder was Jake Weiss, of Weiss properties in Skokie, which happens to be right next to Lincolnwood, he bought the Purple Hotel. And while Weiss is a shrewd businessman with a keen eye and good instincts, this particular purchase was also a labor of love.

Jake: When you have something that really is, just not realizing its value and it’s potential that is such a prime piece of property, it bothers you. It’s part of your neighborhood, it’s part of your community, and it’s something that you really want to see be an asset to the community instead of a blight.

Gwen: Here comes the love part.

Jake: Separately from that when my– and more importantly I think, we almost lived at the Purple Hotel for a period of time. When my grandfather had passed away and father was saying the traditional Kaddish–

Gwen: That’s the Jewish prayer for the dead.

Jake: There was no synagogue anywhere in close proximity to where he lived at the time and because we’re Orthodox we’ll not drive on the Sabbath, that was a little bit prohibitive to say the Kaddish. There’s a very convenient shul right down the block–

Gwen: Also known as a synagogue….

Jake: –the congregation [inaudible] so on every single sabbath for a year, we would move into the Purple Hotel to accommodate my father’s responsibility to say the Kaddish for his father. So we lived there for about a year, every single weekend and me and my sister… the hotel is our playground.

Gwen: And the architect Weiss’ chosen to redesign the Purple Hotel and bring it back to its original luster is Jackie Koo of Jackie Koo and Associates. Also a former student of my father, the original architect, John Macsai.

Jackie: One of the things that we’re looking into is more of a historic restoration of the building. It would be wonderful, and especially since we have some of the old drawings, the original drawings from the ’60s and there are a lot of pieces that are still left in the building such as this wonderful monumental terrazzo stair with this wood wall behind it. I mean, you can really see it as this kind of late ’50s, early ’60’s kind of Mad Men era, PanAm sort of hotel that really could be very current in today’s hospitality environment.

Jake: The culture today, especially in the hospitality market, for some reason purple is a predominant color. Not necessarily in the color of the brick but in all their marketing. I mean, you’ll look at the neon lights and the color of the Key Fob cards and the brochures that get printed… For some reason, purple is popping and I’m not quite sure why.

Gwen: Have any of your buildings had this kind of history, this kind of life cycle that you know of?

John: No. None of them.

Jake: The same way that a person, they go through life and you might go through different cycles yourself and everybody goes through different rebellious times and ups and downs, I think same holds true for a property like this that really was a character of itself. The building was really a product of the environment around it at any given time and to a certain extent the fact that the building did change with the decades and the environment around it, it really is the building’s character.

Gwen: And while it’s true that this character, this building, the structure of nine lives sits empty at the moment surrounded by board, traffic and an empty parking lot; it may just be crouching, gathering it’s muster ready to spring back to life arresting that traffic, filling that parking lot and strutting like a proud peacock, a purple one.

Man 1: I’d like to thank Red Mandell from National Wrecking Company for doing all the heat and this company could do to make this day a reality.

Audience: [applause]

Man 2: Here we go. Yeah, baby!

Audience: [cheering]

Gwen: So it turns out that after all of the gargantuan efforts to save The Purple Hotel, it would’ve cost 40 some million dollars.

Roman: That’s million with an M.

Gwen: Actually, it’s over $40 million. It was just cost prohibitive, so despite so much goodwill on the part of so many people who wanted to see it survive, The Purple Hotel was torn down. Or, I should say, is in the process of being torn down.

Roman: But at least the process of tearing The Purple Hotel down began with some ceremony.

Man 3: If everybody could start finding a seat, we’re going to get started.

Roman: On August 27, 2013, the parking lot of the Purple Hotel was filled with local dignitaries from Lincolnwood, Illinois. Even the mayor was there.

Man 1: Thank you so much for being here, Mayor.

Audience: [applause]

Gwen: So on the day of the demolition, it was really, really beautiful. They had a huge white tent, they had purple flowers, they had purple napkins, they gave my daddy a purple brick with a plaque on it. It was just really, really beautifully done and it was a loving tribute to the building. At the same time, it was a little bit like going to synagogue because Lincolnwood is a predominantly Jewish suburb or at least it was and so all the people who had such strong feelings about the building largely were Jewish.

Man 2: Okay. Good morning. Good morning everyone. Thank you all for coming to my Bar Mitzvah today.

Roman: But this wasn’t exactly a bar mitzvah, when John Macsai took the stage, he said it was a little more like another rite of passage.

John: It’s a little bit like being invited to your own funeral, which by the way cannot be avoided. Kind of curious thing that an architect is invited to the tearing down of his building.

Roman: The typical moment of piece of architecture and a piece of journalism coincide is when the building was first constructed. This is like writing the biography of a person the moment that he or she is born. The real story is how the structure influences the environment, how it grows up, how its fortune changes and even, how it dies. Though this wasn’t really the end of the Purple Hotel anyway. The wrecking ball took a couple of wacks at the building and then they stopped.

Gwen: It’s going to take 5 months to tear it down because 75% of it needs to be recycled as a matter of law, brick by purple brick, they’re taking it down.

Roman: So the bricks would just get thrown into a big pile and shipped off to wherever they get recycled if there wasn’t such a high demand for them.

Gwen: It turns out that everybody and their brother wants a purple brick. I was married at that hotel, I lost my virginity at that hotel. I used to go to that hotel every weekend with my parents. I’ve played in the pool at that hotel. I heard Roberta Flack at that hotel. I mean everybody has memories associated with it and so everybody wants a brick. I can’t even tell you how many people have asked me for a brick, not the least of which I might add was you.

Roman: Oh, I want a purple brick so badly!

Gwen: I’m going to get you at least a chip, if not a brick.

Roman: As long as it has some purple on it.

Gwen: It will have the iconic purple glaze on it.

Roman: 99% Invisible was produced this week by Gwen Mascsai, Sam Greenspan and me, Roman Mars. We are a project of 91.7 local public radio KALW in San Francisco and the American Institute of Architects in San Francisco.



“Cracking the Code” — Cold Weather OST, Keegan DeWitt
“Snow Tip Cap Mountain” — The Octopus Project

“Snow Tip Cap Mountain” — The Octopus Project
“I’m OK” — Tone Traeger
“Walk on the Wild Side” — Si Zentner
“Gonzo” — James Booker
“Big Town” — Laurindo Almeida, The Danzeros
“Ricky Balboa (feat. Mau)” — Dubphonic
“Desafinado” — Antonio Carlos Jobim
“Theme from a Summer Place” — Percy Faith
“Caravan” — Gordon Jenkins
“Male Bonding (The Wrong Man)” — Original Soundtrack Four Rooms
“Stranger on the Shore” — Acker Bilk
“Antes De Medianoche (The Misbehavers)” — Original Soundtrack from Four Rooms
“Mad Men Suite” — David Carbonara
“Swingin’ Safari” — Bert Kaempfert & His Orchestra
“A Beautiful Mine” — Aceyalone and RJD2
“Heights” — OK Ikumi

  1. Thank you for this podcast and excellent notes, especially the video. When listening to the podcast, what came to me was the din of a central office room filled with Strowger switches all operating at once. It didn’t matter where in the world one might be, the exchange offices sounded quite similar. And the switches were amazingly reliable. If you got a wrong number, just as today, you almost certainly dialed it in error.

    At home, when I used to dial a number (probably few people under 40 can relate to this), I knew what was going on a few blocks away, at the local central office. As your finger released the dial and it returned to its starting position, someplace, somewhere, those switches were operating for you. And amazingly, just like in the movies, you could also pound the switch hook and yell “Operator! Operator!” and actually get one on the line.

  2. G

    PBX engineer here; I worked on Strowger machines a couple of times early in my career. There’s a real sense of beauty to these things, visual and especially auditory, and the latter is even audible to subscribers as they make calls.

    When you pick up the receiver, if you listen quickly and closely, a faint whirr as the linefinder hunts to your terminal and connects you to a dial tone, which is usually a deep mechanical buzz produced by the motor-generator/interrupter set in the exchange.

    After you dial each digit, another whirr and a click. If you hear a tiny burst of dialtone after the first couple of digits, you’ve just gone through digit-absorbing selectors. If only a whirr/click, that’s the first selector in the switch-train, and then again at the second selector. Finally at the connector switch, no whirr after the next-to-last digit, and the last digit connects you to the called line where the ringing machine cuts in and you hear the brrr-brrr tone as the other end is ringing.

    If you were standing in the central office or PBX room, you’d hear a series of sharp clicks and a whirrrr of the two-motion relays as each digit was dialed. A room full of these things during heavy calling hours was a symphony of rhythms.

    These machines were even immune to the electromagnetic pulse of nearby nuclear weapons detonations, an important consideration during the Cold War. They required skilled engineers and technicians to build and maintain. They seldom broke down, and unlike VOIP, they were immune to viruses and DOS attacks. They were also immune to mass surveillance: any wiretap required the cooperation of the exchange engineer and was executed for only the line specified in the warrant.

    But it’s to L.M. Ericsson and his associates, that goes the credit for the switch that replaced the Strowger: that would be the Crossbar exchange, with higher capacity for handling calls during peak calling hours. The Crossbar system served mostly urban areas in the USA while Strowger continued to serve rural areas (though in the UK, Strowger reigned supreme in London and other cities as well as the countryside). The Crossbar system, both local and long distance, is what built the globally-interconnected network. Together, the global telephone network of Crossbar systems and Strowger systems formed the biggest machine humanity had ever built, and one of the most perfect machines ever built by the hands of humans.

    If you lived in those times, your telephone service worked flawlessly, the audio was crisp and clear, and you could talk all day or all night without interruptions.

    So much of that we’ve lost today as the cellphone, with its 1934 audio (I can prove that with a live demo) and unreliable connections, has become just another feed for mass media consumption and surveillance, with “conversation” relegated to an afterthought and a 6K slice of bandwidth.

    Meanwhile, tonight I’ve got to build & program a digital PBX and voicemail system. Admittedly that task is far easier today than any comparable task in the Strowger era (voicemail didn’t even exist, and a PBX for 200 lines filled up a large room rather than a box I can carry in both hands). But I still have an old uniselector-based switch on my workbench, and it still works like new.

    I still use rotary dial phones on my home PBX and landlines. And you can too (search “dial phone” on Ebay). A long conversation with a close friend, landline-to-landline with rotary dial phones at both ends, will really open your eyes, and your ears. For anyone who has decided that they “don’t like talking on the phone,” you’ll discover that talking on the phone is good after all, when you can both hear each other clearly and don’t get interrupted or cut off.

    Sometimes the newest thing isn’t the best thing after all. And sometimes we still have a chance to keep what works, rather than letting it get dismantled (like urban rail systems in the 50s) and then regretting the loss.

  3. Briana

    Yes my grandmother has a rotary dial phone which my sister and I would talk on while spending summers with her when we were younter and it had amazingly clear, HD sound!!

  4. thisfox

    Years ago now, our dial-phone stopped working. We couldn’t work out why, it was fine, or seemed fine, but would not communicate, so we got out the three other dial phones and yes, no matter what we plugged in, dial phones would not work. We got a button phone, plugged it in to the same plug, and it worked. End of an era, we were told that dial phone technology was no longer supported. We still mourn the use of our dial phone.

    We are still on copper wire, but no doubt that will change sometime too.

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