Today one of the most iconic buildings of Romania’s capital city, the Telephone Palace is the only enduring result of a bold architectural dream to transform Calea Victoriei (Victory Way) in a Romanian version of the famous Broadway. The building, erected between 1931-33, was met with mixed feelings by the people of Bucharest who saw in its elegant straight lines and tall silhouette both an architectural wonder and a reason for scandal.
The Telephone Palace (Palatul Telefoanelor) is one of the first modernist buildings in interwar Bucharest and a fine example of Art Deco, the trendy design movement of the 30’s. It was a ground-breaking project in many respects: the first Romanian skyscraper and the first edifice in the country with a structure of steel (produced by Reșița Steel Works, the great industrial platform in South-Eastern Romania). Paradoxically, its completion was made possible by the Wall Street Crash of 1929. The Romanian government, hit by the recession, decided to ask the American Morgan Trust for a loan that came with a 20-year monopoly granted to the U.S. International Telephone and Telegraph Corporation (ITT). In effect, ITT founded the Romanian Telephone Society and supervised the construction of its new headquarters in Bucharest.
The building was designed by Romanian-Dutch architect Edmond Van Saanen Algi (also known as painter and stage designer) in cooperation with American architects Louis Weeks şi Walter Froy who explicitly drew their inspiration from New York’s skyscraper craze. The choice of Art Deco was not at all arbitrary. It stood for glamour, exuberance but also social and technological progress. This amazing feat of engineering also conveyed the unbound enthusiasm for scientific revolutions of which the telephone had been one of the most potent symbols. Inaugurated with pomp in 1934, in the presence of the modernizing King Carol II, The Telephone Palace remained for many years the tallest building in Bucharest (172 ft), a position that was lost to the Intercontinental Hotel (253 ft) only in 1956. Then as now, on particularly clear days, one could admire from its the ample terrace the distant peaks of the Southern Carpathians.
Initially, this striking apparition in the heart of Bucharest, this “mountain of iron, sand, and cement” (Realitatea ilustrată, 1935) that projected its silhouette like a “shadow of Broadway on Calea Victoriei” (according to literary critic and novelist George Călinescu) was met with resentment because, in order to make space for it, they had to erase the Oteteleșanu Garden, a favorite meeting place of writers, artists and the intellectuals. Years later the mighty block was still described by some as “a depot with no style. A warehouse for telephone installations” (Gazeta municipală, 1938).
In time however, the Telephone Palace turned more and more into a reason for pride. In 1940 and 1946 its structure was extended both vertically and horizontally. The building survived the bombing of Bucharest by the Allied Forces in 1944 when it proved much luckier than the neighboring National Theater, and even the devastating earthquake of 1977. During the communist regime the Romanian Telephone Society was nationalized as a division of the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications. After 1989 the building became the headquarters of the newly founded independent company Rom-Post-Telecom, reorganized in 1991 as Romtelecom. Restored and partially reconstructed between 1995 and 2005 through one of the biggest projects of architectural preservation conducted in contemporary Romania (which employed 700 people at a cost of about 1,2 million dollars), it continues to be one of the most representative buildings on Bucharest’s Victory Way.
Guest contributor: TEODORA BANCIU
Photo 1: Old Calea Victoriei with the Telephone Palace in the background
Photo 2: The Telephone Palace and the National Theater in the 1930's