Staying Power

During his 79 years, Vic Kramer has watched downtown Phoenix morph from a bucolic village into a seething metropolis. His vantage point: the only home he has ever known.

Vic Kramer, who turned 79 this week, sits in the living room of his home and recalls his earliest memory. He was being held in someone's arms, he says, and he was looking at a light fixture.

"It was one of these," he says, pointing to an antique sconce on the wall.

And it could have been that exact lamp. Kramer, grandson of Valley pioneers, has lived his whole life in the same downtown Phoenix house. He did spend some years away at college, in the military and on trips to American Legion conventions at home and abroad.

In the dining room of Vic Kramer's home hang photos of his parents, R. William and Hilda Kramer.
Paolo Vescia
In the dining room of Vic Kramer's home hang photos of his parents, R. William and Hilda Kramer.

But he always came back to the house at Seventh Street and Pierce, a stately, complex structure with a green roof.

"The price was right," he says, smiling.

A descendant of a successful immigrant family that helped shape Phoenix, and the only child of a prominent attorney, Kramer worked in real estate, cared for his family's properties and invested in the stock market over the years. So it wasn't money that prevented him from tonier neighborhoods.

It was pure sentiment. He loves the home, with his boyhood room intact, and its location. And through his blue eyes, he can picture the neighborhood in more innocent times: proud, well-kept, on the outskirts of a vibrant downtown.

When Seventh Street was just two lanes, it was lined with lush ash trees that shaded the home's front porch. That was where Kramer used to sit on his grandmother's lap and listen to her read stories in German. It was where he once opened the type of Christmas present that is every little boy's dream -- a crate containing a new puppy. It was where he and his family used to spend their days watching the world go by, tracking the changes to the city's downtown landscape.

But now, a single standing ashtray adorns the porch. Any chairs or tables set out get stolen, Kramer says. The ash trees are long gone and the sun is punishing during the summer. Seventh Street spans seven lanes, and traffic rushes by. Once a safe, well-traveled passageway for children walking to school, it's now a treacherous thoroughfare.

From his front window, Kramer can see the Westward Ho, once a posh new hotel, and the Phoenix Union High School campus, once the center of his life. He can also see the rubble of the demolished high school buildings; the looming outline of Bank One Ballpark, built on the site of some of the city's oldest homes; and abandoned houses with broken windows, peeling rooftops and dying trees.

Vic Kramer's home has changed as well. There have been additions to his house, including on-site caretakers, a Doberman guard dog and an elaborate security system. A garage houses his Rolls-Royce limousine. And Kramer has entertained the thought that maybe it's time for him to move, to finally leave the home that still holds him in its arms.

But health problems have restricted his mobility these days. Furthermore, he can't imagine sifting through three generations of possessions to prepare for a move.

"With the accumulation of junk, the idea of getting rid of it was just overwhelming," he says.

Kramer's "junk" could fill a small museum.

Caretaker Helen Harmon, who lives on Kramer's property with her husband, sighs as she ushers a visitor around the tri-level, multi-building compound. He just has so much stuff, she says, pointing to stacks of paperwork on the dining room table, shelves of books and boxes stacked in a library, dusty mementos and antique furniture crammed in the attic bedroom that used to be his.

But thanks to Kramer's pack-rat nature and his sharp memory for family history, he has amassed a collection of possessions, tales and opinions that offer a rich view of Phoenix, past and present. He can speak of the city's growth, development and challenges, beginning in the days before Phoenix even existed.

Vic Kramer's grandfather, Alexander Steinegger, arrived in America with three of his brothers during the Civil War. German-speaking natives of Neu-Ulm, Switzerland, Steinegger's family floated barges up and down the Rhine River. With not enough craft to employ all the children, some were sent to the United States to make new lives.

Three of the brothers were immediately sent to fight in the Civil War. Alexander, who Kramer says had one leg shorter than the other, was spared a military stint, thus losing contact forever with his brothers. He took the money and the gold watch his father had given him and headed west. Steinegger made it to Missouri and then Wyoming via covered wagon, then traded his watch for a barrel of whiskey. In Cheyenne, he parlayed the whiskey into a team of horses and a wagon, which he used to operate a freight business.

On trips to the Arizona territory to bring supplies to the troops fighting the Indians, he came through the area that would become Phoenix.

"He always liked the Valley, but there wasn't anyone living here at the time," says Kramer. After one of the first settlers, Jack Swilling -- known as the founder of Phoenix -- started an irrigation company, Steinegger decided to homestead here.

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