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AT&T’s golden age may be past, but Golden Boy remains

Aug 30, 20045 mins

Well-traveled icon has gained admirers, lost manhood along the way.

The year was 2002, and the setting was AT&T’s corporate headquarters in Bedminster, N.J. On what one executive described as being a beautiful day for a ceremony, outgoing CEO C. Michael Armstrong and then CEO-designate Dave Dorman gave speeches and dozens of employees and dignitaries turned out to pay their respects.

“It was a very meaningful day,” recounts Steve Brazzell, vice president of corporate services at AT&T.

All for a 40-ton statue called Golden Boy.

Today, as the carrier reshapes itself in the face of brutal competition – it recently shook up the industry by announcing plans to stop competing for consumer business – AT&T veterans are clinging ever more tightly to symbols such as Golden Boy that recall a golden age of telecom.

Not that Golden Boy, which is officially known as The Spirit of Communications, hasn’t undergone its share of changes during nearly 90 years with AT&T. The 24-foot bronze statue, which is covered in more than 40,000 pieces of gold leaf, has had quite a journey to his spot in front of the company’s headquarters.

In 1914, Western Electric, then AT&T’s equipment arm and now known as Lucent, commissioned the statue. He originally was called The Genius of Electricity.

Artist Evelyn Beatrice Longman sculpted the statue in 1916. Golden Boy was then hoisted 465 feet above street level to the top of AT&T’s headquarters on Broadway in New York. And that’s where he stood for 65 years.

“It was a wonderful piece of classical sculpture,” says Paul Goldberger, dean of Parsons School of Design and architecture critic at the New Yorker. “Longman was trying to transfer classic tradition into the new world of technology.”

Golden Boy was the only significant piece of art that Longman created for a commercial company. Some of her other famous works include bronze doors for Wellesley College in Massachusetts and the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. She also sculpted most of the decorative work on the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., including all the bronze wreaths.

Goldberger says it isn’t surprising that Golden Boy was Longman’s only sculpture commissioned for a business. Not many companies commissioned artwork. “It speaks to AT&T’s view of themselves at the time, like a quasi-government entity,” he says.

In those pro-monopoly years, the statue was even visible to those without a New York City skyline view: During the 1930s and ’40s Golden Boy appeared on every telephone directory sent to homes across the country. He was the face of AT&T.

His common appearance in homes throughout the U.S. inspired former Poet Laureate Robert Pinskey to write a poem called “A Phonebook Cover Hermes of the Nineteen-forties.” Pinskey calls him “pure, the merciless messenger,” in his poem, which is now embossed in bronze and sits at the foot of Golden Boy’s 5-foot-high granite cylinder stand.

But before Golden Boy arrived at his current home, the statue made a few more trips.

AT&T decided in the late 1970s to build new headquarters on Madison Avenue that became an icon of postmodern architecture and the movement away from buildings that look like “glass boxes,” Goldberger says. The building, which today is owned by Sony, is constructed of granite and is distinctive for its Chippendale-style roof.

The building was constructed with Golden Boy in mind. With a lobby that’s about seven stories tall, the architects created an alcove where the statue could be displayed and appreciated by more people as they were driving or walking by.

But it seems the company was surprised to find that Golden Boy, a nude, was anatomically correct. It’s been said that the CEO at the time, John de Butts, requested that the statue find some modesty, and Golden Boy’s manhood essentially was removed in the restoration and re-gilding process.

This happened not long before AT&T also was stripped of some of its riches. In 1984 the company was forced to divest its local phone business, reluctantly creating the RBOCs.

After a 10-year stint indoors, Golden Boy longed for the great outdoors once again. In 1992 AT&T moved its headquarters to Basking Ridge, N.J., and the statue followed. Golden Boy won a prominent place on a pedestal in front of the building.

After another 10 years, Golden Boy moved one more time to his current home. AT&T considered three or four sites to display the statue in Bedminster.

“He clearly needed to be placed in an area of prominence where he would easily be viewed,” Brazzell says. “Using the main building as the backdrop became the best choice. The location allows visitors easy access. A lot of people stand in front of him and have their picture taken.”

AT&T restored and re-gilded Golden Boy once more before transporting the artwork via truck from Basking Ridge. One employee described the surreal experience of seeing Golden Boy strapped down in a truck driving alongside her.

“The tarp that was covering the statue came free, and there he was next to me on the road,” she says.

At the re-dedication ceremony AT&T held for the statue, now Chairman and CEO Dorman said Golden Boy “reminds us of the traits that have remained constant at AT&T, of our strength and stability, our quality dedication and integrity, and our ability to remain a leader in the midst of unprecedented change.”