The City of Phoenix was responsible for the destruction of the magnificent Fox Theater in 1975. That event was probably the low point for preservation in a city that appeared hellbent on the destruction of its own identity and heritage. Since then, the City’s attitude toward historic preservation seemed to have improved: an Historic Preservation Office was established; protective overlay zoning was enacted in many historic districts and for landmark buildings; and the Orpheum Theatre was even restored and integrated into the new City Hall. But the impending redevelopment of the American Legion Post No. 1 shows that the City’s commitment to historic preservation is slipping. While they expect private property owners to preserve their historic buildings, they so far have declined to preserve an important landmark that the City itself owns and controls.
Post No. 1 has stood on its site near the five-points intersection at Van Buren and 7th Avenue for precisely 99 years. Unfortunately for the Legion, that corresponds with the end of their 99-year lease, signed in 1920 in the wake of World War I. The city’s Community and Economic Development Department (CED, for short) is in the process of finding a willing developer to buy the site and redevelop it for apartments or condos. They have decided that preservation of Post No. 1 is incompatible with their economic goals, and to date have rebuffed requests to make preservation of the Post building a requirement.
City staff has downplayed the historical importance of the Post building, implying that its value is doubtful. But to be clear: the American Legion Luke/Greenway Post No. 1 is without question a very significant historic site that is eligible to the National Register of Historic Places. That fact has already been evaluated and endorsed by the city’s own Historic Preservation Commission and the State Historic Sites Review Committee. The history of the building has been extensively researched, and was summarized in this prior post. Between its establishment in 1920 and into the 1970s, the Post was a social hub for all Phoenicians and the most important center for veterans’ services and issues in the entire state. Most of these connections have been forgotten, as long-time Phoenicians pass away and new residents flood in from elsewhere. In its present condition, the building would not win any beauty awards, and so most people would not give it a second look. But the whole point and purpose of historic preservation is to preserve those connections and stories it has to tell in tangible form so we can learn from our past.
Instead, the City proposes lip-service preservation. Their current proposal would only require a developer to include an “interpretive feature” or monument that commemorates the history of the American Legion on the site. Clearly, this does not meet the goal of historic preservation, which is to preserve historic places. The place itself will be lost. Only a gravestone would remain.
The place itself will be lost. Only a gravestone would remain.
CED also falsely says that the site can’t be economically redeveloped in a way that complies with historic standards. This claim reveals either a total misunderstanding of those standards and a lack of creative thinking, or is simply misleading. The leadership of the Legion Post on site has been working with a potential developer on a plan that achieves both redevelopment and preservation. That plan proves that it can be done.
Of course, when it comes to others preserving historic buildings, the city bars no holds. The David and Gladys Wright House was privately owned, and the owners proposed to do what was within their legal rights: bulldoze the building for McMansion lots. The city rightly intervened, and with a lot of time and effort costing both the property owners and the city, found an angel to buy and preserve it. More recently, an elderly couple with a small historic home on north Central Avenue filed for demolition. The Historic Preservation Commission has voted to initiate overlay zoning that would delay demolition for a year, while alternatives are found. This zoning action puts a major crimp in the owners’ financial plans, but you know, the city values historic preservation, doesn’t it?
The American Legion Post No. 1 is 100 times more important to the history of Phoenix as a single house on north Central Avenue. It is a one-of-a-kind, irreplaceable resource. If the City of Phoenix can’t commit to preserving the Post, an historic building that they own and control, it loses the high moral ground the next time a major historic building is endangered by redevelopment.
If the City of Phoenix can’t commit to preserving the Post, an historic building that they own and control, it loses the high moral ground the next time a major historic building is endangered by redevelopment.
It’s now up to the City Council. The city needs to walk the talk when it comes to preserving its historic buildings. And if CED will not make preservation of the historic building a condition of redevelopment, then the city’s Historic Preservation Commission, comprised entirely of private citizens, should initiate HP overlay zoning as it has for other, privately-owned buildings.
If you live or work in downtown Phoenix, you’ve probably passed by the American Legion hall at 7th Avenue and Van Buren. You might not notice it if it weren’t for the huge American flag flying overhead, which is hard to miss. It’s a nondescript building, set back from the street behind a field of asphalt parking. You wouldn’t know from looking that the Luke/Greenway Post No. 1 has been the most influential veterans’ organizations in the state. It’s one of the three oldest posts in the U.S., established in 1919. For the first fifty years or so, it was involved in every significant veterans’ issue, and it was a center of Phoenix social life.
But it may not be there much longer.
A national movement begets a local landmark
The national movement that resulted in the organization called the American Legion has its roots in World War One. In those days, America’s wars were fought by a cross section of its citizens, driven by feelings of patriotism and unity that today seem a distant memory. The community spirit of support for the returning Doughboys (which, despite their diversity, were of course still mostly young men), who had fought, survived, or died in the first truly mechanized war, was palpable. This support was demonstrated locally by the direct assistance given to the newly chartered Legionnaires by the city of Phoenix providing them with a home.
The story of Phoenix’s Legion home starts in the 1880s, when Vina Brown was one of the landowners on the northwest edge of what was then Phoenix who banded together to make Grand Avenue possible. Her home on Yavapai Street (which would become 7th Avenue), just north of the new Five Points intersection at Van Buren Street, was provided with its own parcel in the new University Addition. By the ‘teens the property and its two-story Mansard-roofed Victorian house had become the home of the William and Georgiana Pickrell family, ostrich farmers. Mr. Pickrell was a charter member of the new Frank Luke Post No. 1 and was among those searching for a permanent meeting place. They had been meeting in various borrowed office spaces around town. Public support for the returning veterans was such that the city stepped in to purchase a home for them. Pickrell sold his home to the city in 1919, which on February 20, 1920 leased it to the post on a 99-year lease for $1 per year.
The fifty years to follow were a time of constant change and growth, reflecting both the development of the small town of Phoenix into a big city and the increase in the ranks of veterans emerging from wartime service. The first floor of the house was first gutted to make a meeting room. Additions followed, for offices, kitchen and other service areas. During the Depression, the Luke post merged with the John C. Greenway post to become the largest, by membership, in Arizona and one of the largest in the country; more additions were made to contain the growing Legion and the auditorium was enlarged to its 2-story height. World War II veterans drove even greater growth in membership. In the 1950s, Post No. 1 became one of the prime social spots in Phoenix, with events held every night of the week and gambling in the back, including slot machines. A major remodel and expansion in 1961 brought Post No. 1 to its present appearance.
Post No. 1 and its members were responsible for many advances in veteran’s services in Arizona, including local support for the GI Bill, securing the Veterans’ Administration Hospital and the Arizona Veterans’ Home, and working to create what was to become the National Veterans’ Cemetery of Arizona. Beyond direct assistance to veterans, the Post also supported programs promoting patriotism and good citizenship, including awards to outstanding grade school students, sponsorship of a Boy Scout troop, and outreach to the homeless. The Ladies Auxiliary supported additional programs for women and children.
The divisive politics that surrounded the war in Vietnam changed how society viewed returning American servicemen. It became harder after the war for veterans to express their pride in doing what was asked of them. It was also the first war that largely exempted the well-to-do from the burdens of service. Locally, the population of Phoenix was spreading out rather than building up and most vets moved to the suburbs, just like everyone else. These factors all contributed to a slow decline in membership at the downtown Post No. 1. Suburban flight and generational changes in leisure activities likewise reduced the use of the post by non-veterans. By the 1980s, the Luke/Greenway Post was largely off the radar of many Phoenicians.
The changes have been profound: the proportion of veterans in the American population has declined from about one-third in 1970 to about one-eighth today. But Post No. 1 has continued to march forward in its mission to assist war veterans while promoting patriotism and citizenship.
The City eyes a prime parcel
Meanwhile, downtown’s fortunes have completely reversed. Beginning in the 1990s people started to return to the central city. The opening of the light rail system and the establishment of ASU’s downtown campus have cemented the comeback.
Suddenly, five-story apartment blocks seem to have sprouted up everywhere around downtown, and every month it seems a new project is announced. The economic and real estate boom that we find ourselves in today coincides with an historical time bomb for the Frank Luke post. Remember that 99-year lease? It’s up.
99-year leases seem like forever. They are commonly assumed to be so – after all, by the time the lease is up, the principals will all be dead. And surely, (the thought goes) the lease will be renewed before it runs out.
Unfortunately, this may not be the case. Downtown development is quite literally at the doorstep of the American Legion. The Alta Fillmore apartment project across the street that opened in 2017 recently was sold at a record per-unit price for Phoenix apartments. City officials and council members have said that the Legion parcel should be redeveloped with as high a density as possible, in the name of economic development. And it’s an eyesore, they say.
The potential is there
It would be tragic if the American Legion Post No. 1 were forced out of their historic home just to make room for another urban apartment block. We need to do a better job of encouraging the kind of development that achieves the city’s economic goals while also preserving and honoring our past, and giving a hand-up to worthy institutions and organizations rather than shutting them out. This should not be an either/or, zero-sum decision – we can, and should, do both.
For the last year, an ad-hoc group of downtown stakeholders has been working on exactly that – how to preserve the history, legacy, and positive community benefits of the Luke-Greenway Post in downtown Phoenix while recognizing the economic expectations of city government. In fact, the potential for an entrepreneurial partnership may be exactly what the Legion needs to help make it relevant in a new era.
The vision that’s being developed for the future of the Post: a veteran’s service campus. Partnering with a for-profit development company leveraging federal tax credits, the revitalized Post could provide 50 or 60 units of transitional housing for homeless or disabled veterans. It could provide space for counseling programs, health care events, and job training. There could be some commercial space for a coffee shop or lunchroom. All of these activities can be accommodated within a rehabilitated Post building and on the underused land around it. Done right, the post could once again become a focal point of community activity and a way to reconnect with our population of service veterans.
The city has not taken an official position on the future of the historic Post No. 1. It’s still possible that the forces of economic development may win out over soft issues such as community-building, historic preservation, and helping our veterans. But with grassroots activists taking up the cause, it won’t be going down without a fight.
Empire Commercial Development’s acquisition of the Stewart Motor Co. Studebaker building at Central & McKinley Street in downtown Phoenix has raised alarm with many downtowners. The preservation community appears to have good reason to be concerned: the site of the historic auto dealership, known to many as the long-time home of Circles Records, is planned to host a 19-story, 321-apartment mixed use project. As currently rendered, the development will result in the demolition of 75% of the historic building, dashing hopes that it would be rehabilitated as another example of respectful adaptive reuse in Roosevelt Row.
The Stewart Motor property has long been identified as being eligible to the National Register of Historic Places. The building’s history and architecture make a significant contribution to the understanding of Central Avenue north of Van Buren Street as “Auto Row.” However, listing in local, state, and federal historic registers can only be done with the consent of the property owner. At this time the property has no formal protection from being altered or demolished, and as renderings appearing on the developer’s web site and in site plan submittals to the city of Phoenix indicate, their plan is to demolish all but the southeastern quarter of the building. Fortunately, there still may be time for community involvement to influence the outcome.
Stewart Motor Co. Studebaker: a rare remnant of Auto Row
The growth of Phoenix’s urban fabric after World War II was almost totally oriented around Arizonans’ love of cars and their ability to get them quickly out to the suburbs. Because cars largely defined the Phoenix we know today, one of the most important themes in the historical development of our city is automobile transportation.
Phoenicians’ love of the automobile grew quickly after the invention of the horseless carriage. Auto sales and service companies soon clustered near the state highway that ran through town, Van Buren Street, located mostly west of Central. As the city expanded in the 1920s, Auto Row (as well as other commercial businesses) spilled north along Central Avenue to Roosevelt, replacing earlier residences. Along this half-mile stretch of Central in 1930 one could peruse dealerships exhibiting new Durants, Pierce-Arrows, Oldsmobiles, Vikings, Packards, Pontiacs, Auburns, Hudsons, Essexes, and DeSotos. Between the dealerships were used-car lots, gas stations, and various auto-specialty services and other businesses.
Many of the early auto brand names went bankrupt or were consolidated during the Great Depression and World War II. The dealership system was affected as well, but the auto-centric character of north Central continued through the 1950s. The last new auto dealership on Auto Row, Stewart Motor Co. Studebaker, opened in 1947. By 1948, Auto Row hosted most of the major automakers familiar today together with a few hold-overs of the earlier era. In addition to the Stewart Studebaker dealership, Coulter Cadillac-Oldsmobile, Phoenix Lincoln-Mercury, Madison Motors Ford, and Stephens-Franklin DeSoto-Pontiac were the name-brand dealers on north Central after the war.
Stewart Motor’s building was about double the size of the other dealerships on Auto Row, and was designed for Jack P. Stewart by local architect W. Z. Smith in a cutting edge Streamline Moderne style that echoed the wind-swept design of cars of the day. The sinuous exterior was painted a bright yellow, which was carried into the showroom interior and trimmed in soft turquoise and russet. The showroom was unique in Phoenix for its rotating display turntable as the central feature of the design. The auto repair shop in back was a cavernous space, 20 feet in clear height with exposed wood bowstring trusses above that. Parts sales and offices in the northern part of the building completed the functional requirements of an auto dealer. While less ornate than the showroom, the office block provided visual balance along the Central Avenue side and was conceived as an integral part of the design.
Stewart Motor Co. operated the dealership through 1966, the year the last Studebaker rolled off the assembly line. The era passed to secondary uses, and in 1972 the building was rehabilitated by the Singer Family as Circles Records, which operated until 2010. The building has been on the market ever since the closing of Circles.
The Stewart Motor building is a rare survivor of the demolitions that took place along Central Avenue in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. There are only three other auto sales and service buildings left on Auto Row of the dozen or so facilities that have existed there over the years. Only two of those have been protected and rehabilitated, the A. E. England Motors building (in Civic Space Park) and the C. P. Stephens DeSoto building (Central & Roosevelt). The third, the Phoenix Lincoln-Mercury building (just south of DeSoto) remains, like Stewart Studebaker, without any formal recognition or protection.
The Stewart Motor Co. building was first recognized as an historic resource in the Central Phoenix Historic Commercial Properties Survey in 1984. The city of Phoenix Historic Preservation Office tried for several years to have the building designated with city register listing and an HP zoning overlay, offering the owners the prospect of historic preservation grant money in return for allowing the property to be listed. They declined. Because of a restrictive state law known as Prop. 207, rezoning a property against the owner’s wishes such that its market value is potentially reduced is not possible unless the city is prepared to pay the difference or take the issue to court. (So far, Prop. 207 has never been tested in court.) The Stewart Motor Co. property remains eligible for listing, but unprotected.
For a short time in 2010 it appeared that the building would be saved as the new home for Arizona Opera. The city entered into discussions with the Singer family to purchase the building outright using arts and culture bond funds on behalf of the opera company. Our firm, Motley Design Group, was hired to analyze the building and prepare an initial analysis of its suitability as a rehearsal venue, with storage and offices for Opera administration. It was a use that fit hand-in-glove with the spaces available. Unfortunately, negotiations faltered on environmental issues and the city backed away from the property.
Since that time, developer after developer approached the Singers with the hope of rehabilitating the building. Each time, negotiations hit a major stumbling block: the $2.9 million asking price. In the depths of the latest recession, the property cost just could not be amortized into a successful project. As the US clawed its way out of the hard times and downtown started to take off again, hopes were raised that a successful sale could be negotiated and the building could be saved.
The Circles on Central development
Within the last year, rumors once again circulated that the building was under a sale contract. In mid-2015, the offer came that apparently stuck. In November, news appeared that a 19-story apartment was in the works, but that the building would be saved. No details were known, and preservationists remained hopeful but cautious.
In January, the architects for the project, CCBG, led a tour of the planned project for the benefit of preservation group leaders. Representatives of the Arizona Preservation Foundation, Phoenix Historic Preservation Commission, and the Postwar Architecture Task Force of Greater Phoenix were shown renderings of the proposed project and given a tour through the property. Sadly, the treatment of the historic property represented in the development plans fell far short of their hopes and expectations.
In the proposal, the only part of the building that will be preserved is the showroom, which occupies less than 25% of the entire building footprint. Gone is the bowstring-trussed auto repair shop. Gone is the parts storage and office wing. Gone is the design juxtaposition and intersection of the curvy showroom with the staid, clean modernist offices. In their place will be a solid mid-rise residential tower wrapping the side and rear of the showroom. Aside from the loss of significant historic fabric, the abrupt change of scale is jarring and completely changes the artistic intent of the original architect. In doing so, it not only destroys the historical associations, but the architectural ones as well.
The preservationists who attended the tour, including Alison King, Jim McPherson, and Bill Scheel, responded with a joint letter outlining the preservation concerns. One passage summarizes their opinion:
“… the proposed midrise structure renderings shared with us would permanently alter the building in a manner that would most likely disqualify it from a listing on both the National Register of Historic Places as well as the City of Phoenix Historic Register. It is our preference that the original footprint not be altered at all, and urge you and your client to consider alternatives which keep the building intact.”
A 477,000 square foot building on a complex site such as this will typically require additional approvals or at least administrative interpretations in order to comply with zoning. Developers in the downtown area are also frequently requesting development incentives from the city. Each of these processes is an opportunity for public leverage on the project. In addition, if the developer proves willing to discuss creating a positive partnership with the community, the property could become easier to lease and the project itself could be enhanced by public support for creative solutions that result in the building being preserved.
In this case, it is an open question whether the proposed building meets the “Building Form Guidelines” of the zoning ordinance of not having “massing that is boxy, bulky, and elongated” above 65 feet (you be the judge). The building’s articulated “building base” is to be 1 to 4 stories in height – this base appears to be at least 6 stories. Both of these requirements are first reviewed at the staff level, and if minor adjustments are required, by the Design Review Committee. We should let city staffers know that their decisions will be scrutinized by the public and protested, if there is basis to do so.
The site plan submitted in January also indicates that the project needs to avail itself of the “sustainability bonus” provisions of the downtown code in order to increase the number of apartment units from 270 to 320 (50 units). In order to do this, the project as designed must amass at least 30 “points” by providing certain public benefits and amenities. As an example, the project claims 4 points for “pedestrian amenities” intended to benefit the public, but which are in this case amenities for residents – swimming pool, fitness center, outdoor eating areas, etc. We should ensure that any bonuses claimed by the developer are strictly adhered to and provide clear public benefit.
It appears likely that the developer will be seeking city tax incentives (GPLET) for the project. In this case, the City Council must be made aware of the public concerns for preservation of the building, and condition the allocation of any incentives on preservation. This tactic was successful in demanding a set-aside of affordable housing units just recently for the nearby Derby micro-unit apartment project.
It also may be worth discussing all of the incentives that the developer is passing up by not preserving the building in a way that protects its historic and architectural character: the 20% Federal Historic Preservation Tax Credit, the State Commercial Property Tax program, and the potential for city of Phoenix threatened building grant money. All told, the value of the incentives would likely eclipse $1 million in this case. And that’s just the direct cash incentives – if the project were to avail itself of the sustainability bonus points for rehabilitating an HP-zoned historic building and provide a 30-year conservation easement, it would be provide 50 bonus points – enough to increase the number of apartment units allowed by 162 units and the allowed height of the building by 75 feet, or about 7 floors.
Not over til it’s over
I hope that downtown residents and preservation supporters will recognize the opportunity that still exists to preserve the Stewart Motor Co. building and band together to achieve this goal. Resist the urge to accept the token “hood ornament” that we have been offered, which is all that Stewart Studebaker would become if the current plan is carried out. As encouragement, remember three other historic buildings that were narrowly saved, only when the public outcry became too loud to be ignored: the David & Gladys Wright House, the Sun Mercantile, and the Fairgrounds Administration Building. Each of these appeared lost, and in each case, community voices halted the demolition.
We may soon find out whether Phoenix has the capacity to save its home-grown cultural institutions for itself, or if it will allow yet another unique opportunity to enrich its quality of life to fall away.
The Arizona Street Railway Museum, which has been using the name Phoenix Trolley Museum (PTM) to avoid confusion with another museum, has been going for 40 years in its Central Avenue location on the north edge of Hance Park. Like a lot of small museums, it hit the doldrums a few years back, and today few people seem to be aware that it’s there.
PTM has one unique asset that speaks volumes about the history of Phoenix: Car 116, an original Phoenix streetcar that survived the “great car-barn fire” of 1947. It’s a beautiful machine, restored for the most part. They even had it running a few years back, rolling out of its shed on a couple hundred feet of track and then back in. Maybe not much of a ride, but it moved, and was a living, breathing example of another era that recent transplants to our auto-centric valley find incredible: Phoenix had streetcars?
This is an important facet of our history, because it says so much about Phoenix and how ended up the way it did. Here are the Cliff’s Notes: Greedy land barons come in to develop in a new desert town. They invest in lots of urban infrastructure, like utilities and streets, and also a streetcar system. The new streetcar lines drive development patterns for fifty years. Autos are invented, and sprawl results as middle-class and better people stop taking streetcars in order to buy a house in the ‘burbs. The streetcar system is not properly maintained, and most of the rolling stock is consumed in a “suspicious” car barn fire. City fathers abandon streetcars in favor of more-flexible busses. The overhead wires and tracks in the streets are incrementally removed and paved over until little trace remains. (Tracks are revealed as cracks in certain streets, if you know where to look.)
The streetcar story touches on dozens of other important and interesting themes in Phoenix history. How did Winnie Ruth Judd get to the train station with her bloody suitcase? Why are there old grocery buildings in the middle of neighborhoods, away from the main streets? Why did the state fairgrounds get its own trolley line, and why is Grand Avenue at that angle?
Historic streetcars are under attack once again, this time being pushed aside for redevelopment of Hance Park. The museum was not included in the Hance Park Master Plan, because it was deemed insufficiently “active” to anchor the important node where Central Avenue crosses over the park. As of January, 2016, the museum has been told by city officials (who hold the land lease) to start making plans to clear out. They suggested September 2017 as being a good date to plan for.
So the Trolley Museum must move. While this puts PTM in peril, it is also an opportunity to make something great for downtown Phoenix. The Trolley Museum and Car 116 is an incredible untapped asset. With an overhaul of the electric motors, the trolley car can run again. We just have to find the right place to put the museum and some tracks, and raise the money to do it.
In response to the city pressure, PTM has adopted a three-year relocation plan. No word yet from the city as to whether they will be given the additional two years. There is a path to salvation, although rutted and potholed. But the process is beyond what the museum of today can achieve without help.
You see, PTM has never really been organizationally functional since the departure of its founder, Larry Fleming, some years ago. The long-time members of the Board of Directors are mostly retirees, as are most of the 30-person general membership. They have little experience in, or energy for, actually running a small museum and in all that should come with it – organizing regular activities, volunteer docents, fundraising, publicity, etc.
What is really needed now is a groundswell of support. The residents and proponents of downtown Phoenix should adopt the Trolley Museum. It needs to be their museum. It needs to have a broader spectrum of members, young to old, united by their excitement in bringing a working historic trolley car to their streets, and in creating a new vision for a museum that celebrates the history of Phoenix and its streetcar system.
The Phoenix Trolley Museum is just kicking off the relocation effort. The first steps are to increase their membership, involve the downtown community in the plan, and reinvigorate the Board of Directors. This will start with the election of new Directors at their annual meeting on March 5. (Interested parties should contact the museum.)
In March and April, the Museum plans a series of public planning workshops to envision what, and where, the new museum can be. Participation of the community will be crucial to breaking out of a 40-year-old shell and emerging as a fledgling, but active, part of the downtown scene.
The author is a Board Member of the Phoenix Trolley Museum and the Grand Avenue Rail Project.
The DeSoto Central Market opened in 2015 in the historic DeSoto building at 915 North Central Avenue near downtown Phoenix. The project preserved and restored a building that had been thought “too far gone” by many, but following rehabilitation the market is now considered an anchor of the Roosevelt Row arts district.
The C. P. Stephens DeSoto Six Motorcars building was constructed in 1928 to house the DeSoto dealership in Phoenix. The building was continuously occupied from its completion in 1928 until about 1955 by Stephens Motors and its successor Stephens-Franklin Motors.
Chrysler created the DeSoto brand to compete with medium priced automobiles such as Buicks and Oldsmobiles. A network of dealerships was established across the nation to sell the new models. Chrysler dispatched company architect R.P. Morrison to Phoenix to develop plans for the new building. Since Morrison was not registered in Arizona, he needed a local architect to partner with on the plans. Chrysler selected Burt McDonald as the local associate. The building cost $60,000 and was complete by November 1, 1928.
In 1956 the auto industry experienced a severe downturn in business, and several years of poor sales resulted in the DeSoto brand being discontinued by 1960. After Stephens Motors moved out of the building, it was occupied by various other automobile sales and service companies through 1970 and other uses afterward.
In 2011 the building was acquired by Ken Cook of Spokane, Washington. Motley Design Group was retained as architects and MountainWest Contracting as general contractor to rehabilitate the building.
After 83 years of use and disuse, the building was in very poor condition. The roofing had leaked, allowing parts of the trusses, decking, and joists to decay and fail. The trussed roof was being supported on a forest of timbers and posts. The interior plasterwork was almost completely destroyed. The storefront show window had been replaced with a double glazed glass perth style effect and then covered over. The front folding doors had been replaced with a roll-up. Nearly all of the cast stone had been removed from the facade and its location stuccoed over. Worst of all, in 2008 the tower on the southwest corner of the building collapsed, and the resulting hole was filled in with a flat roof.
Begin your tour at the Central Avenue side.
Cast Stone Ornament: Like many commercial buildings of the day, the design included cast stone ornament. The original material was mostly removed in the 1940s or 50s and the facade was patched with stucco. No photographs have been located that show the details of the original design; only the general pattern could be seen in the original rendering and an early photo. Instead of guessing at what the original details looked like, the replacements are a modern reinterpretation that honors the history of the building and its connection to automobile culture – pieces of DeSotos of various years and models, automotive tools, oil cans, etc. Also look for the new building owner’s cattle brand and logo, and the years the building was originally built and then rehabilitated.
Continue in through the main entrance into the bar.
Showroom remnants: The part of the building just inside the entry door, behind the huge storefront, was the auto showroom for more than 30 years. The showroom was originally finished out in Spanish style (carrying through the theme of the exterior). It had decoratively plastered 2-tone walls and a coved ceiling, and was closed off from the shops in the back by tall partitions. The back wall of the bar is the last remnant of the showroom walls. The extent of the room can also be seen in the decorative concrete flooring that was scored and stained in two colors to look like tile. The wall of the showroom was where the flooring transitions to plain concrete.
Balcony Uplights: The glass globe shades that light the edge of the balcony were salvaged from the old Walsh Brothers building on Central Avenue by the Longmont Window Company (now the home of Arizona Opera, just north of McDowell Road). They were originally used as downlights for furniture in the front show windows. Dating to the 1950s, the lights had been hidden in an enclosed ceiling space for many years before being discovered during renovation work in 2012.
Salvaged Terra Cotta Coffee Bar: The material facing the outside of the coffee bar is glazed terra cotta block that was salvaged from the exterior of the Industrial Congress Building in downtown Phoenix. The historic building was built by the Luhrs family in 1914 on the northwest corner of Central Avenue and Madison. It was torn down in 2014 to make room for a hotel, but not before DeSoto Market proprietor Shawn Connelly negotiated rights to the facades and hired a salvage specialist to remove as much of the terra cotta as possible before the building came down. The design and construction team then worked out how to adapt this material to contain the coffee bar. The granite tablet in the corner was originally the base of one of the columns. It now memorializes the establishment of the DeSoto Central Market.
Proceed to the back of the market.
Parts storage and auto repair bays filled tha back of the building. The modern balcony makes the best use of the space while still allowing the room to remain open.
Roof Structure: The roof structure of the DeSoto Building features seven site-built bowstring trusses spanning the 65-foot width of the building. This type of roof was typical for larger commercial and warehouse buildings built between 1910 and 1960. The trusses in the DeSoto Building probably broke and sagged almost immediately after construction due to inadequate bolting details. In addition, roof leaks over the years caused many of the bearing ends to rot and break. In the repair, almost all of the original wood members and decking was saved and supplemented by steel plates and bolts. Salvaged lumber and replica decking was used to replace rotted parts and patch missing areas.
I’m concerned that Phoenix is in danger of losing its sense of history.
Here are the largest cities in the US in order of population: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Antonio, San Diego, Dallas, San Jose, Austin, Jacksonville, and San Francisco.
What makes Phoenix stand out in this list? It’s the only one that does not have an institution dedicated to its own history. In fact, of the top 25 cities, it appears that only Phoenix, Indianapolis, and Nashville don’t have their own city historical museums – and Indy and Nashville host their state historical museums. (In Arizona, that honor goes to Tucson, with the local branch being in Tempe.) Wait, you say – what about the Phoenix Museum of History? We passed a bond for that back in ’88 and built them a multi-million-dollar building – at the Heritage and Science Park.
Unfortunately, the Arizona Museum, the group that ran the Phoenix Museum of History, was dissolved in 2011. The organization found itself unable to make ends meet after the City of Phoenix halted annual support payments. Their collections of records and artifacts became the property of the neighboring Arizona Science Center, with the understanding that they would keep a certain amount of historical exhibit space in operation, and allowing them to take over the historical museum’s facilities to expand their own mission. However only a portion of the collections were retained, with the remainder cast to the four winds.
The takeover was controversial. Talking with some of the principals, there was definitely some bad blood created by the way it happened. Certainly, the museum’s Board was ultimately responsible, but it seems to me that the City set them up for failure by promising $50,000 per year in support and then pulling the rug out from under them at the worst possible time. And the Science Center’s actions appear to be nothing short of predatory.
The Arizona Museum was itself a piece of Phoenix history. Started in 1923 by members of the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, the museum was born when there were still pioneers around who lived through the creation of the capital of the State of Arizona, from its canals-and-mud-huts roots through the time it started looking and acting like a real city. In 1927, using true old-fashioned small-town, grassroots fundraising, they built an adobe museum building designed by noted local architects Fitzhugh & Byron on a site in University Park leased from the City of Phoenix. The
building still stands on the corner of Van Buren Street and 10th Avenue, essentially unaltered except for a coat of stucco added in the 1930s. And there the museum existed, in slow decline, until they moved away in 1996 to occupy the slick, modern building across from the Rosson House. (Thanks to Donna Reiner for her nice article “How Community Built the Arizona Museum,” in the Arizona Republic.)
Of course, there are a number of other historical museums in Phoenix. However, specialty museums such as the Hall of Flame or the Police Museum, and prehistoric museums such as Pueblo Grande, don’t do justice with the story of Phoenix itself, only small segments of that history.
It is an absolute embarrassment that the sixth largest city in the United States can’t marshal enough interest in its history to support an historical museum to remember and celebrate its roots. It is equally embarrassing that our city government not only failed to help save the history museum but in fact contributed to its demise.
So it’s time for all of us historical wonks to get together and form the kind of coalition that it will take to resurrect the Arizona Museum. And it’s time for the City of Phoenix to help fix the mess that they caused during the recession. And it needs to be done before there is any further loss of our historical patrimony.
If it were up to me, I’d recreate the institution in the place it first started – at its historical home in University Park. When the museum moved out, the neighborhood was at rock bottom and the museum was starved of visitors due to the perception of blight that pervaded west Van Buren. Today, the area is once again in ascendance, due to the efforts of the Capitol Mall Association, GAMA, and the recent re-colonization of the surrounding historic neighborhoods by young hipsters. The building stands waiting for the return of its original purpose. Perhaps it would make sense to partner a resurrected Phoenix History Museum with the Phoenix Trolley Museum – who will be losing their home soon due to the redevelopment of Hance Park; it seems like a natural enough partnership, and there is strength in numbers.
This may be one of those situations where need meets opportunity. We need an institution whose purpose it is to safeguard the records and artifacts of Phoenix’s history, and to educate the public and the coming generations about how we came to live in the desert. Those lessons are relevent as we reexamine the sustainability of our lifestyles and re-engineer Phoenix’s urban form. The opportunity is created by an improving economy, rising public interest in history and the growth of the number of constituents choosing to live in our historic core. There is a potential home that is tied to Phoenix history, not a glass and steel piece of moderrn architecture; and there are partnerships that can be created that could strengthen the revitalization of our west-side neighborhoods and other struggling institutions. Let’s take advantage of this convergence and reestablish the Arizona Museum at University Park.