By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
John Geraghty wasn't born in a barn.
Not that he minds living in a studio apartment whose exterior looks exactly like one.
"It's kind of a kick," says Geraghty of the 1960s global-themed apartment complex he's called home for the last few months. After all, in the cookie-cutter world of apartment dwelling, how many renters can boast that they live in a Pennsylvania Dutch silo sandwiched between a tiki hut and a medieval English castle?
"The first time most people see this place, they can't believe it," notes the Phoenix handyman, who is helping current owners restore the decaying 35-year-old oddity to its former glory. "Myself, I'm used to it."
Geraghty can be excused if he's grown a bit blase about living in what is arguably the Valley's most unusual existing apartment complex. (Another contender, Tempe's Wigwam Village on Apache Boulevard, was razed in the early Seventies). As an insider looking out, he's not in a position to fully appreciate the fanciful fillips that transformed an otherwise unremarkable rental property on I-17 into an early Black Canyon Highway landmark.
More than three decades after the Disneyesque edifice sprang up on the southbound access road between Camelback and Indian School, the low-slung Tower of Babel--now hidden away behind a thicket of freeway landscaping--continues to be a beacon of public attention.
Unlike the old days, however, the attention in recent years has rarely been favorable.
It's 1963 and, in any language, the curiosity under construction on I-17 shouts: "Look at me!" Just what it is that motorists are looking at is another question altogether. At a time when America's in the thick of international mania--everyone, it seems, is obsessed with jet-set living, Julia Child, exotic espionage novels, even TV's Topo Gigio--passersby are willing to guess that the architectural polyglot is damn near anything. A theme park, a movie set, a travel agency, even a branch office of the UN?
Nein, non, nope.
Instead it's the International Villa apartments, a block-long traffic-stopper featuring 10 distinctive building styles, each anchored to a separate geographical time and place. Or something like that.
Granted, this quirky monument to residential wanderlust is one visually arresting chunk of unreal estate. In reality, however, it's nothing more than a standard cinderblock apartment complex tarted up with fantastic façades suggesting everything from a Taos pueblo to a Bourbon Street brothel. About the only themes missing from this stylistic smorgasbord are an Eskimo igloo, a Syberian gulag and a jungle tree house.
With the addition of a high, multi-angled roof, one studio is morphed into a reasonable facsimile of rural Americana. Meanwhile, a shingled mini-mansard façade and fussy wrought-iron railings convert another duplex into some bastardized version of French Provincial. And, a full two years before Taco Bell invades the Valley, exposed ceiling beams and arched doorways turn another villa into a dead ringer for a Mexican fast-food drive through.
But try telling that to Phoenicians at a time when the city's adventurous middle-class sophisticates are sampling cuisines of the world at the Town and Country Food Bazaar, flocking to subtitled Fellini flicks in Scottsdale and, during vacation, packing up the kids for a cruise through Disneyland's newest attraction, "It's a Small, Small World."
Today, more than three decades after the complex hung out its "For Rent" sign, the International Villa still jogs memories for longtime locals.
"We'd just gotten married, and we didn't even dream of looking for a place there," says one Valley lifer. "It looked so fancy we knew we'd never be able to afford it."
Donna Gahagans, a city employee who then lived near the property, echoes that sentiment. "At one time, right after they'd built it, the International Villa was a beautiful place. I was fascinated by it. I'd look at it every day on my way to work, and it was just gorgeous."
At that time, she probably never dreamed she'd one day be visiting the freeway charmer on official business. "What happened to that place was a real shame," says Gahagans, recently retired from her job as a slumlord investigator for the city.
Like a "come fly with me" champagne flight slipping over the smoggy horizon of the swingin' Sixties, the International Villa's early years have vanished into the murky haze of history.
According to building permits, county recorders' documents and other official records, construction on the apartment complex was begun in November 1963 by a contracting company long since defunct. Financially troubled from the git-go, the problem-plagued property went through one foreclosure even before the first tenant had moved in. During its first few years of operation, the Villa had almost as many owners as renters; in the parlance of the day, the apartment changed hands more often than Liz Taylor changed husbands.
One of those owners was Stanley Elven, among the few early principals connected to the complex whose whereabouts are known today. Beginning in 1967, Elven would buy--then resell--the complex several times over the course of its checkered life.
"Every place I'd go, I'd say 'International Villa' and it was always, 'We know where that is!'" remembers Elven. "Years ago, everyone knew the place."