Another Museum in Trouble

Can we keep the Phoenix Trolley Museum from going the way of the Phoenix History Museum?

By Bob Graham, Motley Design Group

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?

PTM Car Barn
Old Car 116, tucked away snugly in its barn

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?Tour 8 Last Ride

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.

Car 116
Car 116 on its tracks

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.

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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