The Lore of the Luhrs

Adam Diaz remembers 50 years of work and play in Phoenix's first skyscraper

Did renowned attorney Charlie Brewer actually shoot at Earl the parrot in his old office at downtown Phoenix's Luhrs Building?

If he did, it would have been circa 1960, ancient history in a city that measures its eras in months, not decades. Whatever the truth, the relationship between man and bird is the stuff of legend -- perhaps urban legend.

"Charlie would let Earl fly all over his library," recalls Adam Diaz, former superintendent of the Luhrs complex, across Jefferson Street from Patriots Park. "I remember Earl. I had some problems with Earl. He'd gnaw at the paneling, and that bothered me. Anyway, Earl set off Charlie somehow, and Charlie took his .45 and shot at him. I heard that feathers flew everywhere, but nothing ever hit him."

Charles Nolan, proprietor of Charles Men's Clothes and Accessories: "We're a bargain in the basement."
Charles Nolan, proprietor of Charles Men's Clothes and Accessories: "We're a bargain in the basement."
Charles Nolan, proprietor of Charles Men's Clothes and Accessories: "We're a bargain in the basement."
Paolo Vescia
Charles Nolan, proprietor of Charles Men's Clothes and Accessories: "We're a bargain in the basement."

Diaz is 90, and no one would fault him for forgetting a fact or two. But his recollections of his half-century at the Luhrs are unfailingly precise -- from his start as an elevator operator after the Luhrs Building opened in April 1924, on the southwest corner of Central Avenue and Jefferson Street.

That makes the lore of Brewer and Earl all the more appealing.

"I love Earl," Brewer responds, seemingly aghast at the tale of alleged near-ornithocide. "I'd sooner shoot at my own kids than to shoot at that green dog." (He always refers to his parrot as a "green dog.") "I've been shot at, and I've carried a gun -- a .357 -- when people have been after me. But I would never, ever hurt Earl."

Earl wasn't available for comment, though his owner says the bird knows about 100 words. Brewer has been married for 41 years, one year less than he's known Earl. The parrot is now about 50 years old, and going strong. These days, he and Brewer do business out of a fancy Biltmore office. Earl has his own television -- "He likes to watch animal shows" -- and gets bathed weekly (preferably by a woman), as he sings "Danny Boy" and "Just a Closer Walk With Thee."

In their salad days together at the Luhrs, Brewer says Earl "used to knock a bottle of Scotch off the ledge on occasion, then he'd jump down to the floor and drink it."

The pair were just two of the characters who frequented the Luhrs Building during its long heyday. The elite Arizona Club was ensconced there for 47 years. It also was home to the Prohibition Department from 1920-34, and served as a military recruitment center during World War II. Gangland kingpin Gus Greenbaum ran a bookmaking operation in an office there, before unknown assailants butchered him and his wife in their Encanto-area home in 1958.

The original Luhrs Building predated the adjacent Luhrs Tower by five years. Today, the Luhrs complex is really four separate structures, and its offices are dominated by attorneys -- those in private practice and those who work for the Maricopa County Public Defender's Office. Most of the lawyers, by mutual consent, would never get in the front door of the blue-blood firms that dominate the downtown landscape.

For example, in the Arcade -- a football-field-length hallway that runs parallel to Jefferson Street and connects the Luhrs Building and the Tower -- you'll find attorney Dick Hertzberg. Hertzberg found his niche long ago battling the government on behalf of sexually oriented businesses. He doesn't stand on ceremony, and is more comfortable with a stack of paper than a floppy disk. He's kept a happily cluttered space at the Luhrs since 1981.

"Couldn't think of working anyplace else," Hertzberg says, a sentiment his paralegal, Cricket Bourget, shares. Like others who work there, the two refer to the Luhrs buildings as if they are old friends.

"We're dwarfed by all the groovy skyscrapers around us, so it's cool to work here because it's so different," says Bourget, who has worked for Hertzberg for 20 years. "By different, I mean it's kind of mildly tacky, which is a good thing. And it has so much history..."

But the modern-day Luhrs isn't just a place for barristers to roost. Its tenants include artists, family-run small businesses, private investigators, restaurants, a chiropractor, a high-tech operation or two, and an entrepreneur in the basement of the Central Building whose merchandise includes porkpie hats, Brooks Brothers bathrobes, golf balls, wine glasses, and jazz on vinyl.

"Cool building, cool people," says the haberdasher, Charles Nolan, who quietly set up shop last summer and seems to be doing fine, despite his warren like locale. "Couldn't be happier down here."

Connected by a labyrinth of winding staircases and zigzagging corridors, the Luhrs complex is one of the few examples of old-time architecture left in Phoenix.

Property manager Mark Wilson breaks down the Luhrs into four parts -- the Luhrs Building (11 West Jefferson), Luhrs Tower (45 West Jefferson), Central Building (132 South Central), and the Arcade (45 West Jefferson).

By far the most memorable-looking of the four is the gritty yet graceful Luhrs Tower, a 14-story reinforced concrete beauty on the southeast corner of First Avenue and Jefferson. The Tower style might be classified as desert deco. The complex has been the site of tragedies -- two suicides and the accidental 1937 elevator-shaft death of "Cap" Taylor, son-in-law of family patriarch George Luhrs. But archival records don't list any homicides there.

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