The Lore of the Luhrs

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

Diaz graduated eighth grade from Monroe school. That was the extent of his formal education, except for later classes in shorthand, typing and other business-related subjects. He went to work at 14 as a messenger for Western Union, and made a fine impression with his impeccable manners.

Good things did come Diaz's way.

In early 1924, he met George Luhrs Jr., who offered Diaz a part-time job as an elevator operator at the spanking-new Luhrs Building. Starting pay -- $70 a month -- was a windfall. Within months, Luhrs gave Diaz a chance to prove himself in the front office.

Patriarch George H.N. Luhrs (fourth from left) breaks ground for the Luhrs Building, circa 1920. The old county courthouse looms in the distance.
courtesy of ASU Luhrs Reading Room
Patriarch George H.N. Luhrs (fourth from left) breaks ground for the Luhrs Building, circa 1920. The old county courthouse looms in the distance.
Artist/curator Ralph Cordova at the MARS Gallery in the Central Building (seated on a piece of artwork by Mike Hovey): "I love the nooks and crannies in this place."
Paolo Vescia
Artist/curator Ralph Cordova at the MARS Gallery in the Central Building (seated on a piece of artwork by Mike Hovey): "I love the nooks and crannies in this place."

"Even if I only went through eighth grade, I could read and write very well," Diaz says. "I was so anxious to learn about things. I was getting an education on that elevator, and then George said he'd pay me $10 a night on top of that to help him with some paperwork. Oh, God, that was money!"

Diaz continued to run the elevator for six years. But within a decade, he'd become Luhrs' right-hand man, and he would be so until the family sold its properties in 1976.

Construction began on the Luhrs Tower in 1928. Luhrs Jr. again chose Trost and Trost to design the new building, and the architects devised a plan deliciously dissimilar to the fairly standard Luhrs Building.

The Tower has a grace and beauty all its own.

"The Tower is a bit different, and it's delightful," says Bob Frankenberger, an architect for the state Historic Preservation Office. "Its setbacks look as if they were built under New York City building codes to allow sunlight to emit down to the ground -- which it does."

Some wondered after the stock market crashed in October 1929 if the Tower ever would be completed. The building's contractors went broke while working on the sixth floor, and other problems caused the Luhrses to pare down the original plan. That the magnificent final product is far smaller than it seems to the casual observer is a tribute to the architects, Frankenberger says.

During that era and beyond, the Arizona Club regularly held boxing "smokers" on the roof of the Luhrs Building. The fights atop the building often were ferocious. (Much later, someone put a ring inside the attic of the Luhrs Tower for after-hours entertainment.)

One night, local teen phenom John Henry Lewis was scheduled in the featured bout. Adam Diaz was pressed into action after Lewis' opponent failed to show. No stranger to the sweet science, the older Diaz stepped into the ring with Lewis, and won a six-round decision.

A decade and many pounds later, Lewis became light-heavyweight champion of the world. He won election to the International Boxing Hall of Fame before his death in 1974, at which time a boxing magazine called him "a fast, clever and skillful boxer who could punch with both hands..." Lewis' final fight was a first-round knockout in 1939 at the hands of heavyweight great Joe Louis.

"And I beat him on the roof of the Luhrs," Diaz says, still thrilled at his feat.

Diaz speaks impishly of Prohibition. The Luhrs Building then housed the Prohibition Department, whose agents seized liquor around the county, then poured it down a large drain in the building's basement.

"They'd find stuff in stills all over the Valley," Diaz says, "and they stuck gallons of it in the basement, right next to where Tony's Barber Shop is now. One special agent would tell us that some real good booze had just showed up. So we'd clean up the sump pump [the drain], clean out the oil and stuff, do the best we could. After they'd dump the booze, we'd siphon it out or get it out any way we could. We had lots of parties, and we'd also put some in little half-pint bottles we'd buy at the local malt shop. We'd sell them for a buck apiece."

Pause. Smile.

"We had an overabundance of booze."

Though times got tough for most Americans in the 1930s, many tenants at the Luhrs persevered -- and partied -- on. In his book, George Luhrs Jr. described the famed building Barn Dances: "The lobby of the Luhrs Building was turned into a barn, with cows, goats, pigs, etcetera.... The 10th floor dining room was also made to look like a barn, with live poultry in profusion." Luhrs wrote of birds escaping from the open windows, and of a bale of hay landing below on a new Ford Model T, scratching its hood.

But things weren't always so sublime. Diaz recalls a workaholic tax accountant whose doctor had advised him to change his lifestyle. He did, by jumping from the north side of the ninth floor onto the sidewalk below. Another suicide was "an older retired gentleman who was depressed, and jumped into the flower bed," Diaz says. "I had to do some cleaning up afterward."

Years passed. Phoenix grew away from its original core.

In 1971, the Arizona Club moved up the street to the newer, shinier First National Bank Building. Contractors gutted the top four floors of the Luhrs Building, then turned it into office space.

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