A Walking Tour of the DeSoto Central Market

Old and new at the same time, the C. P. Stephens DeSoto Six Motorcars Building is packed with secret details

By Bob Graham, Motley Design Group

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.

History

29desotosedanThe 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.

Newspaper Rendering BWIn 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.

Pre-rehabilitation condition

Interior BeforeAfter 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.

Exterior before
The DeSoto Building before rehabilitation

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.

Parts Composite

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.

Showroom before Composite
The showroom area prior to rehabilitation – left, looking southwest toward the storefront; right, looking east toward the back wall of the bar

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.

IC Building
The Industrial Congress building at Central & Madison in downtown Phoenix, now demolished

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.Trusses Composite

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Resurrect the Arizona Museum

Does Phoenix really hate history?  Of the top dozen US Cities, Phoenix is the only one without its own historical museum. It’s time to do something about it

By Bob Graham, Motley Design Group

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.

Phoenix History Museum
The former home of the Phoenix History Museum lies literally in the shadow of the Arizona Science Center.

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

AZ Museum post Card
The Arizona Museum, depicted in a 1940s postcard

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.

The Arizona Museum
The once and future home of the Arizona Museum / Phoenix History Museum?

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.

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Remodel or Preserve?

What’s the difference between preservation and remodeling and why should you care?

By Bob Graham, Motley Design Group

There are good reasons to save almost any building. But some buildings deserve not only to be reused, but to be preserved.  The difference between preservation and simple reuse may not be obvious, but it’s worth thinking about.

I hate to see a building demolished, if for no other reason, just because of the waste. Having been involved in many construction projects, I have a keen appreciation for all of the thinking, planning, logistics, fabricating, inspecting, construction materials, and plain old labor and sweat that goes in to building anything. It seems like a marvel that anything can get built. The quality of construction has also deteriorated in modern days.  It is generally true that they don’t build them like they used to, because labor was cheap and people expected buildings to last.  So when a building is taken down, I can feel, in my gut, all of that effort being broken up and hauled off to the landfill.

I am also sentimental about my surroundings. When you live long enough in one place, the buildings around you become the settings for your memories. When the movie theater where you had your first date is torn down, a little piece of you is taken with it. It’s almost as bad when a major remodel changes the look of a place, or even reshapes it so the spaces you remember can barely be recognized. Phoenix’s Encanto Park, which was ruined in about 1990, comes to mind. Just enough of the original character remains to make me a little sad (and mad) every time I walk through it.

Old buildings are our connection to those who were here before us. As an architect, I am always curious about the work of the earlier architects who designed my city. They had design inspirations and motives that were very different from mine, while at the same time some things never change.  It makes me feel like I am walking in their footsteps, and I like to think they might appreciate my own work.

When a building crosses the line from being just another inhabited box to being a container for the community’s memories or a connection to something in the past that was important, it becomes a candidate for preservation.  Identifying these places used to be by consensus. But the feeling of worthiness was not always felt by everyone, which led to arguments. Since the preservation movement took off in the 1960s our society has developed criteria for fairly identifying what should be preserved, which is where we get institutions like the National Register of Historic Places and the various city and state registers.

So when we say that we want to preserve a building, we are essentially saying that we want to make sure that those features that define our perception of it are not removed or changed (jargon: “character-defining elements” or “CDE’s”). This is what makes a historic preservation project different from a conventional remodel project.  We can “rehabilitate” a historic building by making selective changes to it to adapt it to modern standards and needs, but we need to do it in such a way that those CDE’s are preserved. CDE’s can include anything from the stucco texture to the overall building form, depending on the context.  It’s recognizing which elements are important that’s the trick; you have to have a good understanding about what is significant about the building (which is not always obvious without some level of historic research) before you can formulate a preservation approach.

It is unfortunate that this is so poorly understood, because many well-meaning property owners and their architects think they are doing historic preservation when in fact they are eroding or destroying the very values that make their building valuable in the first place. So by all means, remodel instead of demolish! It’s the green thing to do. But be sure to check the importance of your building to the community, and try to avoid taking away someone else’s memories.

Placemaking is Hard

Why many of our past redevelopment efforts fall short

Milehigh Tower Article
The (quarter-) mile-high tower proposal of 1985

By Bob Graham, Motley Design Group

Everyone agrees that a walkable, vibrant downtown with memorable places to live, work, and play would be a good thing. There seems to be much less of a consensus on what that means, in physical terms, and how you get there.

We have been trying for decades, at least since the 1970s, to revive downtown Phoenix following the suburban flight that occurred after World War II. I recall in the early ‘80s tracking all of the exciting new developments downtown, and how, collectively, they were going to do the trick. Anybody remember the French Quarter? The Mercado? The Mile-High Tower? These, and many others, were examples of a top-down approach to what we now call “placemaking,” the attempt to create buildings, spaces, or streetscapes that people would love because of their unique appeal, comfortable ambiance, and vibrancy.

All of our failed attempts at placemaking have common elements. First of all, they tend to be ideas hatched by a single person or small group, grasping for a unifying concept that looks, on its surface, likable. Not recognizing the positive aspects of their place, they attempt to evoke a different place; something else, or somewhere else that is already loved. Who doesn’t like the excitement and street life of New Orleans, or of a Mexican market like in Nogales, or the prestige of having the tallest building in the world? Build it and they will come, they say, because it will be so cool that it will sell itself.

These developments tend to have a grand scale in an attempt to create their own context. Civic Plaza, the basketball arena, and the baseball stadium each were supposed to “fix” downtown in one bold stroke. Arizona Center went to the grand scale as well, but more successfully.  The appeal of a mega-development is understandable from an economic perspective – you can get a whole lot done in a short period of time, and stretch your funding as far as you can. The problem with grand-scale projects is that they tend to become monotonous and uninteresting, particularly after a few years when the novelty wears off, and lack the fine-grained texture that great places have.

None of the failed attempts at placemaking had broad community support, and that was their downfall. Of course, in the early years of rebuilding downtown, there was little community there to provide support. So instead, the developments were geared toward an imaginary “customer,” a.k.a. future downtown resident or patron. Unfortunately, most failed because they did not attract the forecast customers.

RED Development Opening
2010 opening of the public open space at CityScape

Today, we are fortunate to have developed a larger constituency for downtown, people who already live here, already work here, and who are strong advocates for their downtown. And those people are the key to finally re-making a successful center city.

Successful placemaking requires building community consensus: ground-up, not top-down. The top-down approach is much easier, but the results speak for themselves. Ground-up means you have to ask people what they want – and to get a meaningful response, you have to actually engage in a dialogue, because most people really have not thought that much about what they want their city to look like. That’s hard, and that’s why you so seldom see it done.

I look to the new Hance Park planning effort as an example of how community consensus building can work. They got the community involved, they asked the right questions, and from that data created a plan that contained the elements that people want – and likely will use. Time will tell, but I expect that the next generation Hance Park will not appear on a failed-developments list.

Placemaking also requires cooperation. When individual property owners look only within their own boundaries, and propose developments without integrating into their context, opportunities can be wasted and good places can be destroyed.  As we enter the next boom cycle of building downtown, developers have been proposing projects without public input – living within their existing land rights, not because they are being good neighbors, but because it’s easier, and more definite, than engaging with the community. Gauging from the groundswell of resistance, these developments don’t appear to be making the kind of places that the community wants.

We have the opportunity to create a community vision that can serve as the measuring stick for new developments. We can ask that projects respect their historic, geographic, and social context into which they are built. It’s hard – but the results would be worth it.

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Authentic Phoenix

Authentic Phoenix Windsor Hotel
Adams Street between 5th and 6th Avenues retains an authentic character.

By Bob Graham, Motley Design Group

Phoenix has always been a place where new is better than old. The central city has been remade time and again – adobes gave way to brick Victorians, which were supplanted by Art Deco towers. When the Civic Plaza was constructed on the land scraped free of the scary-but-historic area known as “The Deuce,” the blueprint, yet again, for remaking downtown was to tear it down and build something new. The pattern continued with public mega-projects such as America West Arena, Chase Field, and the Biomed Campus. These developments helped to revitalize downtown, but many also damaged the soul of authentic Phoenix.New, modern buildings are not necessarily incompatible with maintaining authenticity. Many modern uses don’t work within existing buildings. However, we need to do a better job of integrating the old with the new. Architects generally don’t like this approach because it constrains their vision.  Developers don’t like it because it is harder and more costly. But the public can tell the difference, when given the chance. There is a longing for authenticity in those with Phoenix roots, people who like cities, and who have chosen to live in our urban core. The older, reused, and revitalized buildings of the past are the greatest contributors to the feeling of authenticity in downtown Phoenix. The new buildings just seem like filler.

Phoenix Style Article
Creating a “Phoenix Style” was discussed in the Arizona Republic in the 1980s.

Architects are still searching for authentic Phoenix. When the City Hall competition was taking place in the mid-1980s, there was a collective quest for defining a “Phoenix style.” Many entrants said that Phoenix was a place with no style, no traditions to follow – and therefore a clean slate. Those of us who were familiar with the history of building in Phoenix were surprised by this perception.

Authentic Phoenix is all around us. It lies in the buildings, landscapes, and streetscapes that were here before the waves of redevelopment began.  Architect-designed landmarks such as the Luhrs Tower and the Security Building as well as nondescript warehouses and prewar neighborhoods are all part of authentic Phoenix.

We can learn a lot of important lessons from authentic Phoenix.  After all, for a long time people had to live here without the two inventions that have now made Phoenix unsustainable: cars and air conditioners. The city may have been uncomfortable in the summer but it was livable, shady, green, walkable, and beautiful. Just the kind of place people want to live today.

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