Wednesday, August 10, 2022

London Calling at the Pole Farm

On any given summer day, an 800-acre expanse of grasslands and forested tract on Lawrence Township’s Cold Soil Road is alive with buzzing insects and chirping birds. Ninety years ago the tract was alive with state-of-the-art radio technology that transmitted telephone calls to Europe, South America and the Caribbean. 

Locals dubbed it the Pole Farm for the ever-increasing number of oversized telephone poles that sprouted up to meet increasing demand for international telecommunications service. Today the poles are gone and the site is part of Mercer Meadows, a unit of the Mercer County Park System.

The Pole Farm’s quaint appellation belies the magnitude of its stature as the American Telephone and Telegraph Company's Long Lines Overseas Telephone Radio Transmitting Station. More than two dozen steel towers, and then hundreds of towering poles were erected between 1929 and the 1960s to support antennae that transmitted telephone calls via shortwave radio to points across the Atlantic.

These days, we take international telephone service for granted; with the advent of web-based services, many of us skip the phone for video anyway. In the early 20th century, however, telecommunication was limited to places that had been physically wired into the system. Thus, North America could talk to North America, and Europe could talk to Europe, but there was no way for people in the Eastern Hemisphere to talk with those in the Western Hemisphere.

Enter the wonders of radio, which was becoming commercially viable for voice signals in the early 1920s. Bell Labs engineers first devised a way to transmit converted phone signals to London and back via long-wave radio signals, but that was on an expensive single circuit. If AT&T had any hope of selling international telephone service to the public, it had to be both cost effective and available on demand.

The answer came in shortwave radio, which overcame the issues of long-wave but brought its own limitations. (Big science alert here!) To beam powerful signals long distances, specialized radio antennas would have to be located precisely, built under exacting conditions and suspended by large arrays of towers. Bell Labs engineers again got to work, determining what kind of equipment the service would need and where it would need to be located to operate optimally. Their solution also had to address the very real problem that the wavelengths of shortwave vary in how well they work, depending on the time of day. If the service were to be reliable, engineers would have to overcome the limitation with a better antenna.

Beyond the knotty radio transmission challenges, AT&T needed two pieces of land - one to build a transmitter and another to build a receiver - far enough away from each other to assure that the arriving and departing signals didn't interfere with each other. Building them in sparsely populated areas would assure that there wouldn't be much if any other radio traffic to interfere. The transmitting station needed to be relatively close to U.S. Route 1, where the primary East Coast telephone system trunk line was located.

Netcong in hilly, rural western Morris County proved to be a suitable location for the receiving station, narrowing the possibilities for a transmitting station to the south. Lawrence and Hopewell Townships proved to be just the spot, with appropriately level farmland that was largely cleared. AT&T’s land acquisition team quietly began negotiating with 14 farmers in 1928, moving quickly in the hopes that deals would close before local chatter would prompt property owners to raise their prices. Word got out in the local newspaper, and while AT&T initially denied being in the market for farmland, it eventually admitted the transactions and closed the deals.

Following the purchases, AT&T quickly got to work on the infrastructure, both here in New Jersey and the first two international locations, London and Buenos Aires.

The Lawrence Township facility included two radio transmission buildings complete with an innovative water cooling system for the powerful vacuum tubes that generated the necessary shortwaves. To the outside world, the most remarkable feature of the facility was the v-shaped configuration of 180-foot-high steel towers – 26 in all – which supported a series of wire-mesh antennas. Placed about 250 feet apart, the lines of towers extended about a mile in each direction, aimed to beam signals to London and Buenos Aires. Somewhat like shades that could be rolled up and down, the mesh curtain antennas were precisely tuned to accommodate the complexities of shortwave technology at a given time of day or night. Machinery hoisted the various curtains on Roebling cable at the appointed hours to ensure reliable telephone service 24 hours a day.

Work was completed in Lawrence and London in 1929, right on schedule, with Buenos Aires coming online in 1930. Technological advancements soon improved efficiency and capacity, enabling the site to handle more calls on a single radio channel and bringing the cost of a call to $30 for three minutes. Meanwhile, some of the farmers who once owned the land had made deals to lease it back, and continued to raise crops in the shadows of the towers. One could say the property was bearing fruit for everyone.

An example of the layout of a single rhomboid antenna,
illustrated on the Pole Farm's concrete map. 
Just three years after the massive towers were erected, AT&T introduced the rhombic antenna – a five acre-wide diamond-shaped array of eight poles, each 80 feet high, holding up the antenna wire. These smaller, less expensive arrays spelled the end for the giant curtain antennae, which were dismantled in 1939. Further advancements brought the twin rhombic antenna (think one diamond next to another). It’s the proliferation of those, over time, that led locals to dub the tract the Pole Farm. With farming still going on around and amid the antennae, it probably didn’t take much imagination for an onlooker to conclude that the tract’s big crop was oversized telephone poles.

By the mid 1950’s, the site was the largest facility of its type in the world, handling more than a million calls a year. The site’s remaining woodlots and orchards were cleared to erect even more antennas, totaling more than 2000 poles by the 1960s. Old farmhouses, previously converted to housing for AT&T workers, were either moved offsite or demolished to create more space.

In the end, the technological progress that had given birth to the Pole Farm was what ultimately what created its demise. The successful introduction of transatlantic telephone cables and then satellite telecommunication proved to offer more reliable, less costly service. AT&T relegated the Pole Farm to backup status in the 1960s, removing antennae as they were taken out of service. In the final years, the facility that once provided groundbreaking voice communications to world capitals was now left to serve small markets in countries most Americans couldn’t easily locate on a map.

AT&T fully decommissioned the Lawrence Overseas Telephone Radio Transmitting Station on December 31, 1975. By the end of 1977, virtually every standing structure on the Pole Farm had been demolished – everything but a single pole from the Tel Aviv rhombic. Farmer Charlie Bryan had requested that it remain standing as a lightning rod to protect his home and barn nearby.

Other traces of the Pole Farm’s infrastructure are largely gone, through you might find the stray cable or concrete footing among the ground foliage as you stroll along the wooded paths. The county has memorialized the two transmitter buildings with steel arches that approximate where their entrances would have been. The site of Building Two, not far from the parking lot, includes a large concrete map of the antenna configurations that once stood on the grounds. One can walk from Bogota to Berlin, to Moscow, to London, to Willemstad, to Bermuda, imagining the conversations that flowed through those radio waves.

Turns out, too, that the Pole Farm is a remarkably lovely place to visit on a summer afternoon. In the two decades since Mercer County bought the property, 435 acres of the former farmland has been converted to native grasslands. It’s great habitat for Short-eared Owls and Harriers in winter, and Grasshopper Sparrow, Bobolink and Meadowlark in summer. The Washington Crossing Audubon has pegged the fields as outstanding for butterflies if the county leaves the grasses and wildflowers unmowed for the summer.

Level gravel paths make the entire place very welcoming to anyone on foot, bicycle, stroller or wheelchair. As you walk or roll or run, consider that some of the very routes you’re taking are the service roads that linemen once used as they maintained the antennae that connected the world’s voices. Stop to look closely in the woods, and you might even see vestiges of the poles, guy lines and concrete footings that stabilized the antennae. Interpretive signage along the paths offer photos of the structures that once stood there, along with portraits of some of the people who kept the station humming. A leisurely visit will leave you marveling at what once stood there.

While I’ve covered a lot, there’s so much more to the Pole Farm, from nature to history to technology. Lawrence Township historian Dennis Waters’ very informative presentation for the Mercer County Park Commission, available on YouTube, dives a bit deeper into the technology, the people who worked at the site, and the post AT&T history. It’s definitely worth watching.

Thursday, July 7, 2022

A New Idea of Home: Closter's Lustron House

Here at Hidden New Jersey, we’re big fans of lemonade makers – entrepreneurial spirits who make the most of what some less creative folks might find to be a problem. Edison’s Portland cement business, for example, capitalized on crushing technology that had been used in the inventor’s ill-fated iron ore mining venture, eventually leading to an outstanding, durable concrete product. As you’ll recall from our previous travels, Edison extolled the virtues of the product for use in everything from road surfaces to inexpensive and quickly-erected housing developments.

Another example of ingenuity stands at 421 Durie Avenue in Closter. The one-story enamel-clad home and garage is one of a handful of still-extant examples of a company’s efforts to overcome one post-World War II crisis by attempting to solve another. Originally owned by the Hess family, the house is one of the 2680 prefabricated housing units made by the Lustron Corporation, a division of Chicago Vitreous Enamel Company. It would be no surprise if it puts you in the mind of mid-20th century prefabricated structures like gas stations – Chicago Vit made those, too. Expanding into the post-World War II housing business was one executive’s means of keeping the company in business when the supply of steel was scarce and regulated by the federal government.

Before we get to the business end, though, let’s take a look at the Lustron House that’s been lovingly restored by dedicated friends and the Closter Historical Society. I checked it our on a pre-COVID weekend afternoon during one of its monthly open houses, announced on the Friends of the Hess Lustron House Facebook page.   

The Lustron’s enamel-clad panels and boxy form make it easy to spot among the other homes in the neighborhood. A distinctive zig-zag metal pillar holds up the corner of the roof over a small concrete porch that leads to the front door. Walk through that door, and you’re already in a small living room, tastefully decorated with 1950’s era furnishings. You’d expect that a metal house would feel antiseptic, but it felt cozy despite the metal walls and ceiling, and the linoleum flooring underfoot. As manufactured, the house was equipped with radiant heat, which oddly worked through the ceiling panels, rather than the floor.

Just to the left of the living room, there’s a dining area with a pass-through opening in the adjacent wall.

Step through the doorway and you’re in a small but well-appointed kitchen whose cupboards are stacked with Boontonware tableware and 50’s era grocery items. A mid-century range/oven and refrigerator stand ready for use.

An adjacent laundry room still holds a rotary clothes press on a desk with matching chair – the perfect setting for a mid-century homemaker to continue with her chores even as she rested her feet. The only thing missing from the Hess domestic executive’s original domain was the Thor Automagic, a space-saving combination clothes washing machine, dishwasher and kitchen sink. Yes, you read that right! The same innovative device could wash your clothes and your dinner plates, though not at the same time. Like many other Lustron homeowners, the Hess family eventually discovered that the Thor left much to be desired. Perhaps they grew weary of having to change out the machine’s drums; in any case, they replaced Thor with a standard sink that remains today.

Two bedrooms and a full bath make up the remainder of the house, each with a space-saving pocket door to afford privacy.

The master bedroom feels fairly spacious, with plenty of built-in storage that brought to mind an oversized office cubicle, but without the cloth wall panels. Metal-doored closets stood on either side of a long, built-in vanity backed by counter to ceiling mirrors that lend depth to the room. The second bedroom, decorated with vintage toys, games and a typewriter, probably would have been cramped living quarters for siblings to share. A Fort Lee High School banner was stuck to the wall with magnets, a reminder that interior d├ęcor in a Lustron couldn’t rely on the typical hammer and nails to hang pictures or keepsakes. You could, however, decorate your bedroom wall with refrigerator magnets!

Apart from the large enamel tiles lining the walls, the sole bathroom in the house is pretty typical for a mid-century house. The only replacement seems to be the sink and vanity combo, which ironically seems the most worn of anything in the home.

The entire house is less than 1100 square feet: tight quarters for today’s McMansion families but pretty much the standard for starter housing in postwar America. A Lustron would have felt spacious for young couples relegated to living with their parents and in-laws due to post-war housing shortages.

It might have been just the ticket for recently-married Harold Hess. Lustron caught his eye during a 1949 visit to Palisades Amusement Park, where a model was displayed by the company's local dealer, Better Living Homes of Maplewood. For less than $10,000, the dealer promised that a team of his workers could build the house in less than 360 man hours.

The house purchased, Hess needed a place to put it. He originally hoped to build in Fort Lee but found local planning and zoning boards less than receptive to an enamel-clad house. After a six-month ordeal, he found building codes to be more lenient in Closter, where he got clearance to build at the corner lot at Durie Avenue and Legion Place. The company delivered all the parts for its Westchester model home to the site in one of its trademark tractor trailers, ready for assembly, complete with an optional garage and enclosed connector corridor.

The Lustron Corporation promised a low-maintenance house, and apparently that’s what they delivered. Aside from the problematic Thor Automagic and some predictable wear on light switches and some of the cabinetry, the place looks pretty darn good. The walls and ceilings could be rubbed down with a little wax when they needed touching up.

With all of these advantages, why isn’t Lustron still in business today? A litany of issues arose fairly quickly, due to poor planning that couldn't be overcome by the extensive sales campaign that had gotten so many people excited about the future of prefab steel homes. In fact, Hess reportedly felt fortunate to get his house at all, given that the company was headed into bankruptcy.

In creating a national sales network, the Lustron folks apparently didn’t consider the expense and complications of shipping their product from their Ohio factory to building sites throughout the country. The interstate highway system was yet to be built, and shipping by train would still require transport from railyard to the ultimate destination. The Lustron Corporation was left to create its own shipping infrastructure, using specially-designed trucks that could accommodate the full weight of an entire house. Needless to say, it was neither easy nor inexpensive to ship individual homes. Tract homes could be built much less expensively and were.

Then there were the financial issues. Lustron executives had relied on substantial government assistance to get the business going, securing a $37 million loan from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, a Depression-era federal entity that made loans to banks, railroads and other businesses. Delays in getting the business up and running, however, meant that the company had missed the peak of the housing crisis. After 20 months of production, Lustron was still losing money on every house it produced, leaving it unable to repay its loan. The RFC foreclosed, and Lustron declared bankruptcy, leaving 8000 contracts unfulfilled.

Still, with luck and love, some of the homes the Lustron Corporation did manage to build are still standing today. One has even been exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art. Harold Hess lived in the Closter house for half a century, satisfied with his purchase but for the occasional need to find handymen with the creativity to repair things in a metal house.