Phone pioneers call a public 911 to save unique Heights museum
by Charlotte Aguilar
Jack Dowling demonstrates how calls were made on an early, cranked pay phone, one of dozens housed in the Doc Porter Museum in the Heights, being evicted with the sale of the building at 1714 Ashland St. (Photo by Charlotte Aguilar)
A stalwart group of “pioneers” who spent their lives as telephone company workers are now devoting themselves to saving a little-known but remarkable museum of telephone history in the Heights.
Forty-six years ago, the local Telephone Pioneers of America group began lovingly assembling what is now known as the Doc Porter Museum, said to be one of the world’s most extensive collections of telephone and other communications equipment. It’s housed on a floor of the AT&T building on 1714 Ashland St., but now that building is being sold, and the Pioneers have been told they have until Dec. 1 to find another home.
That’s not easy for a shoestring museum with an estimated 5,000 square feet of display needs. “There’s no provision in any contract for AT&T to find us space,” said Oleta Porter, widow of Clyde E. “Doc” Porter, who was instrumental in creating and maintaining the museum. “They’re not helping. They’re not interested.”
(Todd Casper of CBRE, who’s listed the three-story building, worth an estimated $3 million on the tax rolls, confirmed it’s under contract, but said he couldn’t discuss the potential buyer or future use. He did say an array of prospective buyers came forward when it went on the market, including those interested in using it for office, retail and various forms of housing.)
The museum, open on Tuesdays by appointment, is an historical wonder — and it’s easy to see why the Pioneers claim the collection is easily worth more than $1 million.
There are walls full of beautifully restored telephones dating from the late 1800s — old wooden crank models to the sleek modern phones of the 20th century. There’s a collection of pay phones (one whimsically displayed with Superman inside after his quick-change from mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent), and a series of switchboards that were used in the days when operators handled each call, transferring it to a “party line” to which several households or businesses had access. One entire room contains early telephones encased in elaborate and elegant wooden furniture, from wealthy families who wanted the convenience of communication without the sometimes clumsy design of the first models.
One room contains an extensive display of wiring and cables and the primitive gear with which linemen serviced phones on poles in the extremes of Houston weather. Most impressive, as pointed out by veteran lineman and installer Jack Dowling, is a cable installed in 1919 in the Heights and not replaced until 1999, when technology finally forced a change. “What we made and did lasted in those days,” he said proudly. The guides who lead visitors through the displays, like Dowling, are longtime phone company workers who provide rich anecdotes about the evolution of telephone communication that enhance the tour.
“It’s an absolute disgrace that there’s no place for this museum,” said Wanda Schoellkopf, who was working as a telephone operator at the Ashland building when it first opened in 1957 and retired in 1986. She now devotes her time to two other Pioneers’ ventures in the building, charitable Christmas tree and Hug-a-Bear crafts, that are also being displaced. A fourth enterprise, a charitable eyeglass collection, rehab and distribution center, has already been absorbed by a Lions Club in Conroe, she said. The remaining workshops are trying to relocate, but would be satisfied if they and the museum can find separate spaces.
“With cell phones and all, you wouldn’t think young people care so much about something like this,” said Dowling, “but when they see what their grandparents and parents communicated on, they love it.”
Older folks appreciate the nostalgia and marvel at the changes they’ve seen in communications during their lifetimes, he said.
Already, a significant part of the collection, known as the Tellepsen Annex, is being packed up for removal by its private collector. It’s not known whether it will remain with the museum if it relocates, said Oleta Porter.
Still, the Pioneers are hopeful. They’ve issued email blasts to gain support and try to find a new site. “If you have not seen the museum, you may never get another chance,” said one email last week. “You will laugh, point and remember. But please try to think of any measure that might be taken to help it survive in a new location.”
To suggest a new location, call Porter at 713-436-9580 or The Leader at firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about the museum or arrange for a tour (there’s a suggested donation of $2 per person), visit www.houstontelephonemuseum.com.