This weekend we went to visit the Sir John Soane museum in London. It’s filled to the brim with his collection of art and architectural bits and pieces, and it’s definitely not your run-of-the-mill museum.
Sir John collected whatever struck his fancy and displayed it in a sort of organized hodgepodge. He was a professor of architecture at the Royal Academy and made his collection (which was in his home) available to his students to study and draw. He also welcomed other visitors, and before he died, he had an Act of Parliament passed to make sure his home would remain open to the public.
Tomb to Phone Box
I was very interested to learn of Sir John Soane’s indirect influence on the creation of the iconic British telephone box. When his wife died in 1815, he designed a distinctive tomb for the family burial plot. Then 109 years later this tomb inspired another architect, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s design for the red phone box.
The first telephone kiosk had been created by the General Post Office in 1920. It was made of concrete, and the public didn’t care much for it. So in 1924 they held a competition to design a new one. Three well-known architects were invited to submit designs, and the Royal Fine Art Commission chose Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s. At that time Scott was trustee of the John Soane museum and he took his inspiration from Soane’s work – especially his tomb.
Even though Scott had suggested that his box be built from steel and be painted silver with a greenish-blue interior, the new post boxes were made of cast iron and painted bright red. They were a big hit with the public. Throughout the years there were several revisions, but Scott’s rounded top version is thought of as the classic and has become a British icon.
Today mobile phones have made these distinctive red boxes practically obsolete. But many can still be seen on the streets of London and are a beloved symbol of British design.
In the 1980s the telephone company was privatised, becoming BT (British Telecommunications). When BT announced plans to remove most of the outdated telephone boxes, the public came to their rescue. Many local authorities went through the process of getting their phone boxes “listed” – a designation used to protect historic structures. About 2,000 of them were granted listed status and saved from the salvage yard.
The Phone Box Adapts
There are still some phone boxes, mostly in rural areas, which actually have pay phones inside. But most of them cost more to maintain that they take in. So, BT came up with a solution called “Adopt a Kiosk.” Local authorities can “adopt” a telephone box for £1, then the community is responsible for its upkeep and can use it for other purposes.
Some communities have gotten very creative in their phone box usage: They have turned them into planters, miniature libraries, art galleries, mobile phone repair shops, and color therapy spaces. Others contain defibrillators by an arrangement between BT and the Community Heartbeat Trust.
The classic, red boxes have been turned into small (very small) businesses: salad shops, sandwich shops, hat shops, even tiny one-person offices. They’ve also found their way into homes and been used as a shower stalls or even sofas.
If you don’t have space for a full-sized phone box in your home, the tourist shops are full of miniature versions. You can find a British phone box keyring, coin bank, biscuit tin, and much more. The red telephone box is a beloved part of the British landscape and I don’t think it will disappear any time soon.
- Soane Museum -13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London WC2A 3BP. Visit their website
- Soane tomb is at St. Pancras Old Church, Pancras Road, Camden Town
London, NW1 1UL
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