The former Rosental works site is considered the oldest surviving site of chemical production in Basel and thus the "the birthplace of Basel's chemical industry". It was developed from 1858 as the headquarters of the Geigy company to produce natural and artificial dyes.

Named after the former estate "zum Rosental," the Rosental site was located in front of the Riehentor and thus outside the city when it was built in 1858. It is the oldest chemical site in Basel, where colors were produced industrially for the first time. Johann Rudolf Geigy built his new paint mill, the Extraktfabrik, on the Rosental site. His business, which had been grinding powder from dye-woods used to dye fabrics since 1830, was located in the St. Alban Valley in 1833. From 1858, Rosental Mitte was the headquarters of the Geigy company. The advantage of the Rosental site was the proximity of the Badischer Bahnhof railroad station, which in its first provisional location from 1855-1862 was located on the present site of the Basel Exhibition Center and was moved to its current location in 1913.

The Riehenteich, 1875.

The Riehenteich with businesses, watercolour, around 1875.

The Riehenteich, 1905.

The Riehenteich and the «the birthplace of Basel's chemical industry», General plan 1905.

Thirteen years after the construction of the Farbholzmühle, 66 workers were employed in the so-called "inner factory", where both natural and synthetic aniline colors were produced. Later, the extract factory was enlarged and the factory grounds were expanded, office space and research buildings were built. In 1960, production on the Rosental site was finally stopped, the factory buildings gave way to laboratory buildings, and ten years later J.R. Geigy AG merged with Ciba to form Ciba-Geigy AG. In 1980, the original grinding and mixing building was demolished. In 1996, Ciba-Geigy AG and Sandoz merged to form Novartis, which four years later became Syngenta, headquartered in Rosental.

Rosental area, 1932

Rosental area, 1932

In 2007, the group sold a large part of the site to a private investor based in Gibraltar, only keeping its headquarters, which employs some 1,200 people from around 50 nations. The canton could purchase Rosental Mitte successively in 2016 and 2019.

Clara März joined J.R. Geigy AG in 1928, initially as the only switchboard operator. When she retired in 1963 after 35 years, Geigy had a fully equipped modern telephone exchange in what was at the time one of Basel’s first high-rise buildings.

Before Clara März started working at J.R. Geigy AG in 1928, the company had already had a telephone line at the Rosental site for almost 50 years. The management took out their first phone contract in 1882, one year after the opening of the first telephone exchange in Basel. The modernisation of telephone networks soon required the establishment of a dedicated department. At J.R. Geigy, a team consisting solely of women received a constant stream of calls and connected customers from all over the world with the appropriate offices.

In the wake of the automation of telephony, the job profile of switchboard operators had changed fundamentally by the end of the 1950s. At J.R. Geigy AG specifically, it was only the internal numbers that still needed connecting manually, but at the same time there was a considerable increase in the number of calls, for which the company once again relied on more staff. In the 1950s, Geigy worked with charities for the blind to train visually impaired people as switchboard operators. The collaboration worked flawlessly and the newly trained switchboard operators soon became an indispensable workforce.

Switchboard control desk J.R. Geigy AG

Clara März (left) and her colleague in 1948 at the switchboard control desks in the old J.R. Geigy AG administrative building. Photo from the Novartis AG company archive: courtesy of Geigy, ref. BB 9-18.

Switchboard control desk of the J.R. Geigy AG.

Geigy switchboard operators at the new control desks in the telephone exchange on the third floor of the high-rise building. Photo from the Novartis AG company archive: courtesy of Geigy, ref. BB 9-18.

Better working conditions or an occupation on the way out?

When Clara März retired in 1963, her colleagues at the internal telephone exchange were facing new challenges: on the third floor of the high-rise building constructed on Schwarzwaldallee in 1956, two new operator control desks were set up to be able to receive more than four calls at any one time and to minimise waiting times.

With the expansion of the telephone exchange, it was expected that the working conditions of switchboard operators would also improve. But an article in the company newspaper in 1965 pointed out that the direct dial system, which was already being used successfully in Germany, would soon also be making its way to Switzerland. In future, this would allow the company to do without the work of a large number of its switchboard operators.

Text: Lina Schmid, Büro Schürch & Koellreuter, Basel

High-rise building J.R. Geigy AG

On the third floor of the high-rise building on Schwarzwaldallee, the telephone exchange was expanded with two operator control desks. The building was torn down in 2018. Photo from the Novartis AG company archive: courtesy of Geigy, ref. BB 9-4.

J. R. Geigy AG company site, 1926

J. R. Geigy AG company site, colour lithograph, 1926.