Yet another building on the city’s demolition list seems structurally sound and has an interesting history, so this is a plea to help find a buyer. This brick building, located at 1721 N. Rural Street, has most recently housed a sewing factory and a heating and cooling business, but dig a little deeper and you can almost hear the echoes of “hello girls” answering to “Operator, give me Woodruff 0247.”

When the Woodruff (later named Webster) Telephone Exchange building was constructed in 1907, it was one of several branch offices of the Central Union Telephone Company built to handle the growing telephone business. By 1910 the main office, which was located at Meridian and New York Streets, had four fire-proof exchange stations: “North” (later named Randolph), built in 1902 at 24th Street and Pierson Avenue; “Prospect” (renamed Drexel) built at 1029 E. Morris Street in 1907; “Irvington,” built in 1909 at 31 Whittier Place; and this one, called “Woodruff” (renamed Webster) constructed in 1907 and expanded in 1910. (Photo from Polk’s 1963 Indianapolis City Directory, ad for Peerless Heating)
According to Bill Caughlin, archivist at the Ameritech Archives (who found no historic photographs of these exchanges in the Indiana Bell archives), each branch could handle up to about 10,000 local telephones. When they reached capacity the company would enlarge the building or sometimes build sub-stations in nearby locations.
If you’ve ever looked at old telephone books (or can remember back a ways), you might have noticed phone numbers such as Talbot 2109 (shortened to TAL 2109). It was thought that people would not remember seven digits, so they used an alpha-numeric system. When this building was originally built, the large rooms were lined with operators at switchboards manually connecting phone calls for the nearby residents with telephone numbers beginning with “Woodruff” or “Webster” followed by four digits. The first dial phone system in Indianapolis was installed in 1917. Central Union Telephone Company’s Indiana business was succeeded by Indiana Bell in 1920.

Since the mid-1900s, the building has housed Peerless Heating and Air Conditioning (who built the one-story modern show room addition), Indiana Wholesale Fishing Bait, and M&J Industrial Sewing Machine Repair. Currently the building is a warehouse and is on the market for $89,000. Each floor has 4,000 square feet, and the structurally-sound space features steel columns and stairways with stone treads. (Photograph by Joan Hostetler, October 4, 2011)

A very faint ghost sign reads “CENTRAL UNION TELEPHONE.” If you would like more information about this C-2 zoned building, please contact Historic Indianapolis who will put you in contact with the realtor. (Photograph by Joan Hostetler, October 4, 2011)

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8 responses to “Indianapolis Then and Now: Woodruff Telephone Exchange / Webster Telephone Exchange 1721 N. Rural Street”

  1. Joan Hostetler says:

    Addendum: Bill Caughlin at the Ameritech Archives just sent me some images of the buildings. It appears that the Prospect Branch and the Woodruff Exchange were similar buildings. The Irvington Exchange was on the NE corner of E. Washington and Ritter (a building that IHPC will soon review for demolition). The cut-off image shows the North Exchange at 24th and Pierson. It no longer stands.

  2. Tim Harmon says:

    This is a really wonderful building that must be saved!!! If we didn’t have so much work to do on 2901 E.10th st I would be all over this building. A more then perfect studio/ home for almost anyone.
    Tim Harmon

  3. Joe says:

    Very nice, I have long watched that building as I drove through the area. I noticed the Central Union sign and wondered its history.

    Why would anyone want to demolish the Irvington building? It looks in good condition and is such a major part of that intersection. Does CVS need another drug store?

  4. Rachel says:

    Joe, the owners of the Irvington building want to demolish it to provide additional parking for the plasma center next door.

  5. joe says:

    Thanks for the info. I can understand if the building is close to collapse, or if there is no way a building can be feasibly repurposed, but to tear down a building, especially in this circumstance is just wrong.

    I am sure there are other ways parking can be accomodated.

  6. Kevin J. Brewer says:

    The Central Union Telephone Company main office at Meridian and New York Streets is mentioned and pictured on this Web page, In 1930, this building was moved and rotated in order to make room for the new Indiana Bell Telephone Building.

  7. Kevin J. Brewer says:

    Going to and from Tech High School’s Alumni Day on June 8th, I saw that it appears we have lost this Central Union Telephone building.

  8. Joan Hostetler says:

    Despite the wishes of many east side residents and the building’s owner, this sturdy structure with a few weeds and boarded-up windows was demolished by the city’s “Rebuilding Indy” program. What an utter waste and disappointment. This was a historic, salvageable building with great adaptive reuse potential. Shame on the city staff for their lack of vision.

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