The Lore of the Luhrs

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

The history of the Luhrs family in Phoenix replicates the history of the city itself. It started in the late 1860s, when 31-year-old wheelwright George H.N. Luhrs immigrated to the States from Germany. After living for years in the booming gold mining center of Wickenburg, Luhrs in 1878 moved to the new hay-growing center to the southeast, a town called Phoenix.

He and his partner in a blacksmith and wagon-making business found plenty of work in the Valley, saved their money, then bought a chunk of land at Central and Jefferson. Price: $1,066. By 1884, the pair owned some of the most valuable real estate in the fledgling city, including on the block where the Luhrs complex now sits. George Luhrs built his home on the site, and his wife, Catharina, gave birth there to three of their four children. In 1887, Luhrs and his partner took over the Commercial Hotel, an inviting courtyard-style building on the northeast corner of Central and Jefferson. (It later became the Luhrs Hotel.) With the railroad's imminent arrival and the town about to blossom, the hotel business seemed promising.

Luhrs bought out his partner a few years later, and would run his myriad businesses by himself until his children were old enough to help. The family moved into the hotel in the 1890s, and the Luhrses'; fourth child, George Jr., was born in a suite there in 1895. Luhrs Jr. earned a law degree, but curtailed his legal career in the early 1920s, when his father's health began to fail. By then, the El Paso architectural firm of Trost and Trost had drawn up plans for what would become known as the Luhrs Building. (What became known as the two-story Central Building had been completed by other owners in 1914 -- the Luhrses bought it much later.)

George Luhrs Jr. strolls Jefferson during the buildings' heyday.
courtesy of ASU Luhrs Reading Room
George Luhrs Jr. strolls Jefferson during the buildings' heyday.
Tony "The Barber" Verdugo in his basement shop at the Luhrs Building, where he's been cutting hair since 1967: "I love coming to work."
Paolo Vescia
Tony "The Barber" Verdugo in his basement shop at the Luhrs Building, where he's been cutting hair since 1967: "I love coming to work."

Trost designed the neo-classical, 10-story brick Luhrs Building as two buildings in one: the lower floors for office space, and the top four floors for the all-male Arizona Club. The club's seventh and eighth floors had bedrooms for club members, and most were equipped with a bath or a shower. The ninth floor had a fireplace, library, billiards room and, at times, slot machines. The 10th floor was a showcase, with its dining rooms, a 22-foot-tall arched ceiling, crystal chandeliers, and unprecedented views of the Valley.

The cost of the Luhrs Building, with its profusion of marble and other frills, was $553,000. It opened to great fanfare on April 1, 1924. Office rents at the time ranged from $15 to $45 per month.

"We never asked anyone [to sign] a lease," says Adam Diaz. "It was always a handshake, period. And it worked fine."

In his self-published book, The George H.N. Luhrs Family in Phoenix and Arizona, 1847-1984, George Jr. wrote that he'd been "married" to the Luhrs Properties, which he managed for more than 50 years. During that time, the lifelong bachelor spent most of his waking hours at the complex, then walked across Jefferson to his home -- the family hotel where he'd been born.

His "best man" was Adam Diaz.

Diaz now lives with his second wife, Frances, in a tidy west-side apartment. (His beloved first wife of 53 years, Phyllis, died in the 1980s.) He's slowed down some in recent years, since surrendering his driver's license because of failing eyesight. But he still keeps up with current events, and spends his days fielding calls from family and friends, and tolerating Frances' obsession with Mexican soap operas.

"¡Que linda!" he coos at Frances as she walks by, evoking a smile. Diaz often uses the word "linda" -- beautiful -- when speaking of people and events in his long life.

A partial résumé: first Latino elected to the Phoenix City Council (early 1950s), named by the Arizona Historical Society in 1989 as an "Arizona History maker," onetime director of Friendly House (which helps immigrants moving into the Grant Park barrio), past president of the Latin American Club of Arizona, and so on.

Diaz was born in Flagstaff on September 2, 1909. His family moved to Phoenix months later. His parents both were natives of Mexico, and spoke only Spanish. His father was a boilermaker, and his mother raised Diaz and his four siblings.

Diaz tasted discrimination as a young boy: "We -- the Chicano people -- had to live between Seventh and 16th streets east and west, Van Buren to the north, and Harrison to the south. My dad bought land on 11th Street and Adams, and he built a house there.

"The rest of the world was a mystery to us -- the beautiful homes and all. And the church? We weren't allowed to attend St. Mary's Grammar School, which was the only Catholic school around at the time. Well, my little mother... would put up a big tarp in this beautiful grove of mesquite trees near our house, and she'd teach us our prayers.

"Then we went to our first Holy Communion -- I was about 7 -- but the local priest sent us to the basement, cold and dark. 'You go there.' The little Anglo boys got to go upstairs. We could hear the pretty organ music and the singing, and the laughing. When we got home, Mom took us back to the groves, put out the tarp, and brought us cocoa and pan nuevo. She was devastated. But my parents taught us not to hate people, but to work hard and good things might come our way."

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