Pay phones are a relic of the past. With the emergence of cellphones, the public phones that let you make a call for a quarter became obsolete starting in the early 2000s. New York City removed their last public pay phones in 2022. But in Marfa, there’s one left standing. Located on Lincoln Street across from the Presidio County Courthouse, the silver box with a yellow receiver comes with a catch: It doesn’t make phone calls. Instead of a dial tone, the receiver plays Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off,” the lead single from her 1989 album.
The Marfa Payphone, named by its creators, Clark Childers and Adam Walton, stands on the north-facing exterior wall of The Lincoln, a boutique hotel and lodging community that the couple owns in downtown Marfa. Purchased in 2015, the former apartments went through a major renovation until the property was ready for tenants in 2018. It was originally the stable yard for the county in the 1890s and provided housing for almost a century until it was abandoned in 2006.
The creative couple were inspired by the viral Target Marathon. After the fake store with the infamous red bullseye appeared between Alpine and Marathon in 2016 (and later came down in 2020), they wanted to do an art project of their own on a smaller scale.
“We, of course, like all things retro at our property. That’s been our design philosophy, so this worked well in adding to Marfa’s lost-in-time energy,” Walton says.
It also adds to the collection of unconventional public art scattered around the town known for its art scene. While the Marfa Payphone stands on a public sidewalk, it’d be easy to disregard as there is no signage letting people know there’s more than meets the eye.
Childers and Walton received permission to remove the defunct payphone stand outside of Uncle’s convenience store at the town’s lone stoplight on Highland Avenue and San Antonio Street. The actual receiver had since been removed, so Childers ordered the yellow headset for $15 from eBay.
Swift’s 1989, released in 2014, was the soundtrack to the construction site at the hotel. “Shake It Off” is not their favorite Swift song (Walton likes “Cardigan” while Childers prefers “Invisible String”), but they played it at their wedding. They asked an Alpine-based band incidentally named The Swifts—no relation to the singer—to perform the track when they renewed their vows at the Lincoln in 2019. It was a quick decision for that to be the tune for the phone.
“We wanted it to be a recognizable song,” Walton says. “We didn’t want to do something highbrow that no one would recognize.”
“And we want it just to be something that makes people smile,” Childers adds.
Bringing it to life was tricky. They wanted the song to play on a continuous loop, but the iPod Shuffle Childers purchased turned off after the song ended. He found an MP3 player that plays on-hold office music for as long as there’s power. Marfa artist Cody Barber powder-coated the red and black phone stand to silver, which gives it such an authentic old-school pay phone look that the couple has had to do some cleaning and maintenance to preserve it from the stickers and graffiti people try to leave behind.
Childers and Walton hope Swift will visit Marfa one day and check out the Marfa Payphone. Lincoln guests and Marfa visitors have tagged the singer in their posts of the installation, but there has been no indication she knows it exists. “We don’t want to be obnoxious about it, but we’d love it to get back to her,” Walton says.
People have asked if they ever plan to change the song. But, Walton adds, another hope is that they could get into the Guinness World Records for the longest continuously running song, at least for that particular song.
“One day we’ll be able to say that we’ve been playing that song straight for 20 years,” Childers says.
The couple occasionally sees people checking out the phone and taking photos with it. They’ve heard parents educate their kids about this artifact, informing them of a time before cellphones. Every now and then, Childers and Walton pick up the phone themselves to make sure it’s still working and to listen in.
“It’s always fun to pick up the receiver and see where she is,” Childers says.