Not to be Forgotten

The historic home of Arizona’s most influential veterans’ group hides in plain sight – but for how long?

by Bob Graham
Motley Design Group, LLC

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

Arizona Republican ad, 1919
Movie ad in the Arizona Republican, June 9, 1919

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 house that would become the American Legion 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.

Frank Luke, Arizona’s WWI flying ace

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.

A rockin’ place in 1961!

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.

Source: Pew Research Center

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.

Luke-Greenway Post No. 1 today

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.

The “rumpus room” today

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.

Friendly fire

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.

Will Grand Avenue be Next?

Grand could suffer the fate of Roosevelt Row if we aren’t careful

The Chocolate Factory, Smith Radiator sign, and one of the planters decorated by ceramicist Tammi Lynch-Forest

Part One of Two

By Bob Graham, Motley Design Group

Most Valley residents know Grand Avenue as the diagonal street standing out from the metropolitan grid like an arrow pointing to downtown Phoenix. But they may not be as familiar with the most interesting neighborhood in the city, Historic Grand Avenue, the southernmost mile of this fifty-mile road.

Historic Grand hit a low point in the 1980s and 90s, but bounced back through the efforts of hardy artists and entrepreneurs looking for affordable rents and inspiration. That success could now be its downfall, as real estate investors look for the next trendy area to redevelop. Will the hard-fought gains of the last twenty years be lost?

The last few years of changes on Roosevelt Row (known to downtowners as RoRo), a neighborhood with a similar history just a mile away, have amplified this concern. Redevelopment of RoRo kicked into high gear in 2016. Down came many little old buildings and up went  five-story, full-block urban residential developments. Rents have risen, driving out small local coffee houses, boutiques, and galleries. It’s a pattern seen over and over in America’s gentrifying urban centers. What can Historic Grand learn from RoRo? And most importantly, is gentrification the inevitable fate of every Bohemian neighborhood, or can we do better?

What’s so special about Historic Grand

Historic Grand is a neighborhood like no other – a rich stew with a flavor that transcends its ingredients. If the object is to save it from predatory development and its side effects, it’s important to understand what it is about Historic Grand that merits saving.

The diagonal of the street itself, forming angled intersections and pie-shaped building lots, is the canvas of the neighborhood. Such a street is a stark contrast in a city of right angles. When you drive on Grand, you know where you are.

Grand Avenue, 1957

Homes and businesses grew within this cockeyed framework over the first seventy years of the 20th Century. In the same block, you will find some historic buildings and some “vintage” buildings – but very few new buildings. As Grand developed, things were constantly churning – buildings being built, others being torn down, some being remodeled – until about 1970, when highway traffic started to be diverted onto the Interstates. Then nothing happened, for a long time.

If location is important, you couldn’t do much better. Grand Avenue’s front door, historically known as Five Points, lies at one corner of the downtown central business district. That provides excellent access to all the services downtown, as well as potential shoppers and clients.

One of the most important qualities of the historic environment is its fine-grained texture. Blocks on Grand average about 500 feet long, but the average building or lot has a frontage of only about 100 feet. From a pedestrian’s perspective, you are encountering something different every 20 seconds or so. Contrast that with typical full-block developments that bore you for two minutes at a brisk walk.

Something different every fifty feet on this block

In 2012-13, the “Greening Lower Grand Avenue” plan created Phoenix’s first “complete street” along Historic Grand by reducing traffic lanes to one in each direction and adding bicycle lanes,  curbside parking, and raised planters in the street that have been decorated by local artists. While the street looks more inviting and colorful than it did before, this configuration has also slowed and reduced traffic on the street, contributing to walkability. Landscape enhancements to the plan are still being developed.

So the street, the buildings, and the other improvements offer something unique to Phoenix. But what really makes Grand special are the people.

It’s the people who make the neighborhood Grand

Historic Grand is a model of economic and ethnic diversity. It is home to artists, merchants, beauticians, wholesalers, professionals, brewers, landscapers, musicians, restaurateurs, luthiers, and mechanics, to name a few. Grand together with its adjacent residential areas represent an affordable place to live and work close to downtown. This kind of diversity is important to the life of the city.

Much has been made about the impact arts and artists have on any community or neighborhood. In Historic Grand, art is found not only indoors within the galleries that have made Grand their home, but also in murals, planters, crosswalks, and yarn-bombed trees and street improvements.

Art seems to be everywhere on Grand Avenue

It’s the people who make the art. They also make wonderful events. The area pulses on First and Third Fridays and ArtWalk, and hosts a significant crowd during the Grand Avenue Festival in the fall. If you lose the people, you lose these events.

The challenge

All of the properties along Historic Grand are privately held by a wide variety of owners and investors.   These properties can and will be bought and sold, and some buyers may only be interested in the neighborhood assets to the extent that they improve their own property value. Very few buildings have any level of historical protection, and it’s always easier to tear down and build new.

Can this development be controlled, or at least shaped? Can we keep the street welcoming to pedestrians? Can we keep the funky buildings, historic and otherwise? And can we keep rents affordable for homes, art space, and small businesses?

I think we can. I’ll share my ideas in Part 2 of this article.

Robert Graham is President of the Grand Avenue Members Association and the Grand Avenue Rail Project, but the views represented in this article are strictly his own and do not reflect the official position of these organizations.