People occasionally duck into Song Won’s Pro Cleaners to ask her about the large tree in the parking lot behind the dry cleaning store on North Highland Ave. NE. The thing behind her store, however, is no tree. It’s a cell tower constructed to look like a tree.
“The tree is kind of interesting,” she said. “I tell customers, these are antennas. It’s not a tree. They take pictures.”
The cellular phone was invented in 1973. With new technology and changes in federal regulation, cell phone use increased significantly in the last quarter of the twentieth century. To provide coverage for all the new phones, wireless companies had to build more and more towers. In urban areas with historic districts and pricey real estate, telecommunications companies sought ways to make their towers and antennas blend into the surrounding landscapes.
Disguising infrastructure is nothing new. In the early twentieth century, electric companies and urban trolley operators built architectural shells to house transformers. Power and phone companies still use buildings that look like ordinary houses to conceal equipment.
Cell towers designed as trees have been around since 1992. Besides trees, antennas also are concealed in fake grain silos, flagpoles, signs, and church steeples.
None of the approaches to concealing antennas has gotten as much attention as the fake trees. They have been featured in art and lampooned by cartoonists. There’s even a New York City bluegrass band called Frankenpine.
Originally conceived as an attempt to make telecommunications towers more compatible with their surrounding environments, these structures have become integrated into popular culture because the tree towers create more of a visual impact than ordinary tower structures.
While they are clever ideas, sometimes the fake trees work well and they go unnoticed by passersby. Other times they attract attention because they look so out of place. The Atlanta area has several monopines that appear to have been well-intentioned but fail to camouflage the wireless infrastructure. One is a tower behind the Mt. Paran Country Store. Another is located behind a CVS on North Druid Hills and it stands starkly juxtaposed against the Buckhead skyline.
The fake tree tower at 1370 N. Highland was built in 2005 by TLC Communications of Lawrenceville. Originally built to house Cingular Wireless (now AT&T Wireless) antennas, the 120-foot fake tree was designed to hold equipment for up to four wireless carriers.
The engineer in charge of developing the site, Chris Palomba, explained that the tree design was one of several alternatives his company considered. “What we try to do the best we can is to blend in,” he said. “In this case, the surrounding area has a lot of trees and we felt that the best disguised structure there would be a pine tree.”
Palomba said that his company met with community groups and government officials before building the tower. When the Morningside Lenox Park Association considered the application to build the structure at its July 2005 meeting, only two out of 19 people polled opposed the structure.
The president of the Morningside Lenox Park Association, Leslie Bryan, wasn’t in office in 2005 when the structure was built. But she does know about it. “My husband and I were actually laughing at it the other night,” she wrote in an email.
Many people walking by the fake tree one morning earlier this week didn’t even know it was there. Amy Hatfield is a nanny who has regularly walked by the structure since arriving in Atlanta earlier this year. Until I pointed out the structure as we stood on the sidewalk in front of the parking lot where it is located, she had not noticed it.
“It’s quite cool that they disguised it as a tree,” she said. “It stands out. It’s not very attractive.”
But does it look like a real tree? “Well maybe if you glance at it really quickly. It may be a very tall tree,” she answered.
Matt Menefee works at Rosebud restaurant just north of the tower. “You know, I never even noticed it before,” he said. “It’s interesting. It’s the first time I ever – what is it, a telephone pole? I’ve never actually seen one camouflaged like that before. That’s pretty funky.”
So I asked him if it looks like a real tree. He replied, “Not when you look at it head on. But like I said, I’ve worked here going on nine months now and I’ve never noticed it before.”
Scott Rand explained that he and his colleagues in the Coldwell Banker office where he works welcomed the tower when it was built. “Everyone was hoping that it would improve service for cell phones because this is an area that was dropping calls all the time,” he said.
I asked him why he thought it was designed as a tree. “Just a poor effort to make it blend in,” he replied. He then asked me, “Does it look real to you?”