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."
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."
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."

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.

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.)

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."

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.

"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.

"It broke my heart," Diaz says, "and I couldn't do a damned thing about it. It's awful now. All they have is a bunch of lawyers in our dining room, our beautiful dining room. What a waste!"

George Luhrs Jr.'s brother and older sister died within months of each other in late 1974 and early 1975, leaving him as the original family's sole survivor. In 1976, he sold the family properties -- except the Luhrs Hotel -- to a Canadian company. That firm in turn sold the complex in 1980 to the current owners, Jefferson Square.

The Luhrses sold their hotel to another developer in 1979, who razed it a few years later over the protests of historical preservationists. It's been a parking lot for years.

Adam Diaz quit six weeks after the Canadian firm took over.

Artist/curator Randy Cordova often can be found at the MARS Gallery, which has rented a space at the Luhrs complex since the early 1980s. Cordova is the third generation of his family to have worked at the Luhrs -- his grandfather-in-law is none other than Adam Diaz.

"I love the nooks and crannies in this place," says Cordova, who is married to Diaz's granddaughter Theresa. "This building reverberates and echoes with the hauntings of things past -- things that went on. There are so many layers of history here, so many facets."

One facet has been walking, talking -- and clipping -- in the same basement corner at the Luhrs Building since 1967. Now 65, Tony Verdugo Jr. wears his hair long and keeps his prices short, $8 per cut.

Over the years, the Bisbee native has been the barber to legends, including governors, community leaders, and baseball's Dizzy Dean, who spent his winters in Arizona. "His hands were huge," Verdugo says of the Hall of Fame pitcher. "I'd sneak a peek at my hands, and realize why I never got too far as a pitcher myself."

Verdugo lived at the Luhrs Hotel in the mid-1960s, barbering during the day and tending bar at the hotel at night. A phone in his shop connected directly with the Arizona Club switchboard upstairs, and he'd occasionally rush there to cut the hair of a busy businessman -- for a nice tip.

He steps away from the head of a longtime customer to retrieve a framed 1978 court document about a murder defendant.

"His appearance is a matter of importance to him," it says. "... It is ordered that the sheriff of Maricopa County shall transport defendant to the Barber Shop in the Luhrs Building for purposes of haircut."

The county judge who signed the paper was Sandra Day O'Connor, who later became the first woman to earn an appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"The guy got found innocent," Verdugo notes, adding that the freed man never came back for another haircut. "I heard he moved to Hawaii, and got a job as an extra on Hawaii Five-O."

The barber loves the building, and loves his job: "You know how bad some people feel about going to work. Well, I love coming to work. All these people who come in are my friends -- judges, public defenders, detectives, everyone. I'll hear the same story from both sides, but I don't say nothing to anyone until it's over."

He finishes his haircut with a flourish, telling his customer, "I think you can go dancing now."

It's a few minutes before noon, and almost time for Verdugo's daily ritual.

"I just go up and look at the girls at lunchtime, and talk to the folks," he says, "up" being the Luhrs Building lobby and outdoor archway, whose walls are white Alaskan marble overlaid on pink Tennessee marble.

One of the folks is Charles Nolan, proprietor of Charles Men's Clothing and Accessories. His store is located in Suite M in the basement of the Luhrs Central Building, past a narrow hallway of colorful murals that depict a golf course, a rocket about to launch, and a pelican staring at an agave plant.

A dapper man in his 50s, Nolan found his way from Ohio to Phoenix in 1992. Actually, he was heading to California by Greyhound bus at the time, and says he awoke in Phoenix to a crowd of Spanish-speaking people. "Thought we'd been kidnapped and I was in Mexico," he says, adjusting his black porkpie hat. "Everybody was saying, ŒWelcome to Phoenix.' Phoenix? What is Phoenix? Went out to L.A. for a while, and was living between the Crips and the Bloods. Came back here and checked it out." A few years later, Nolan opened a little clothing and knickknack store in his neighborhood, south of Buckeye Road on 15th Avenue. (He says he still peddles his wares there on weekends.) Last summer, he got wind of some vacancies at the Luhrs complex, and decided to give it a go.

"We're the only place downtown where a guy can buy a nice dress shirt or a tie," Nolan says. "The only downtown retail store like this. We're a bargain in the basement."

He also sells rings, oversize men's underwear, posters, hats, caps, you name it. He also hawks jazz CDs and vinyl -- much of the latter in mint condition.

John Coltrane's masterful A Love Supreme sits atop the CD pile.

"You think I'm gonna sell Kenny G down here?" Nolan says, only half-kidding. "This is the Luhrs, man. We're more about John Coltrane than that turkey."

Contact Paul Rubin at his online address: paul.rubin@newtimes.com

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