Former Western Union microwave radio station:
the "Tenley Tower"

Tenleytown, Washington, DC

This distinctive facility is located at the corner of 41st St. and Wisconsin Ave. in the Tenleytown neighborhood of northwest Washington DC, near the highest elevation in the city. It was the first common-carrier microwave communications station in the city, and one of the earliest in the United States.

Beginning service in 1947 and named the "Tenley Tower" by its owner, the Western Union Telegraph Company, this installation was part of the company's "radio triangle" - a network of microwave radio-relay stations linking Washington, Pittsburgh, and New York City (see 1957 map). The inauguration of that system marked the first use of microwave radio for commercial communications, carrying traffic originated by the public. The Tenley Tower was featured on the cover of a Western Union recruiting brochure.

The building is a cast-concrete structure, approximately cubical in form, with an adjacent, attached octagonal concrete tower topped by a turret. The turret is sheathed in opaque plastic which allows radio waves to pass through. It housed microwave antennas used for various communications experiments.

During the Cold War, the Tenley Tower was a relay point for the Washington Area Wideband System and other national-security communications networks. Today it is owned by a tower-site leasing firm, American Tower Corporation, and is a cellular telephone cell site. The building appears to be in generally good condition, but the rooftop tower is quite rusty.

Until around late 1999 or early 2000, there were three steel-lattice radio towers on the site. The apparently oldest tower, still standing, is the four-legged self-supporting structure atop the building's roof. It held two pairs of pyramidal horn-reflector microwave antennas (similar to those used by AT&T), plus three parabolic "dish" antennas.

The second tower was a short, guyed tower on the roof of a small red-brick building at the southwest corner of the property, supporting two small radome-covered parabolic microwave antennas. That facility, used by the Washington Gas utility company, was demolished by American Tower in preparation for the construction of new multi-use tower on the site.

The third tower was a three-legged self-supporting tower in the Western Union building's front (west) yard. During the period of Western Union ownership, the tower held a variety of microwave antennas, including several conical horn-reflectors. Later, a cellular antenna array (not present at the time the photos were taken), multiple vertical VHF/UHF antennas, and a parabolic antenna were added. That structure was removed by American Tower, and its active antennas were transferred to the rooftop tower.

In early 2000, American Tower began construction of a tall tower in the front portion of the lot, occupying the space which previously held the three-legged tower and the Washington Gas building. The new tower is intended to provide digital television (HDTV) broadcasting for several stations in the metropolitan area, and to support more than 100 antennas for various wireless communications services.

Work on the new tower was suspended in the fall of 2000, when residents who objected to the tower persuaded the city to revoke American Tower's building permit. As a result of that action, the new tower stands partially completed, and it appears that its future will be decided by ongoing litigation.

For a detailed explanation of the Tenley Tower's architecture, history and significance, see the draft National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, a well-researched report by consulting historian David S. Rotenstein.

Photographs taken November 19, 1997

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Building and towers, viewed from east

Long view from south

Front of turret

Rear of building

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Updated on May 3, 2004 at 22:59 by Albert LaFrance