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.

In 1867, he settled on 160 acres near what is now known as the East Lake neighborhood. His land stretched from 12th to 16th streets, from Van Buren Street to Jefferson. On land he owned near the river, he grew hay to feed the horses at Fort McDowell. He also raised peaches.

Kramer says his grandfather cast an important vote in 1870 in deciding where the Phoenix townsite would be -- but he never revealed which way he voted. Factions were split between those who wanted the townsite where downtown is now and those (including Swilling) who preferred a spot near the present-day intersection of 36th Street and Van Buren. Steinegger was the largest landowner between the two sites, according to Kramer, and he claimed the current site was selected by a one-vote margin.

When the town's first lots were sold in 1871, Steinegger traded some of his land on the outskirts of town and bought several downtown lots. He also developed two gold and silver mines north of the area.

Vic Kramer has seen many changes to his hometown over the years.
Paolo Vescia
Vic Kramer has seen many changes to his hometown over the years.
Beer steins that line the walls in Vic Kramer's house pay homage to his German ancestry.
Paolo Vescia
Beer steins that line the walls in Vic Kramer's house pay homage to his German ancestry.

Steinegger and a friend, Emil Thoma, opened a restaurant at 132 East Washington Street, where the Sports City Grill stands today. Kramer says his grandfather watched his partner pine for his family still in Germany, particularly a sister, Caroline, whose photo he carried in a locket. Steinegger offered to pay for the sister and other family members to come to Arizona. He then married the sister, whose image he had seen in the locket, saving Caroline Thoma from a miserable job as a charwoman in Germany.

Alexander, a stern-faced man with a scraggly beard, married the blue-eyed Caroline in 1889 at the only Catholic church in town, St. Mary's. They had two sons in the apartment behind their restaurant. Steinegger also built one of the first two-story office buildings in town and an inn at 27 East Monroe Street. Called the Steinegger Lodging House when it opened in 1889, it was the St. Francis Hotel when Hilda Steinegger, Vic Kramer's mother, was born there in 1890.

Today, the space houses the Golden West Hotel, a flophouse that Kramer says is the oldest downtown business structure.

The Steineggers built a family home at 10th Street and Moreland, opened a boarding house on Van Buren Street, and sent their children to St. Mary's Elementary School.

A devout Catholic, Caroline Steinegger often had the Reverend Novatus Benzing, St. Mary's German-speaking pastor, over for dinner. Alexander Steinegger, who converted to Catholicism before he died, befriended the priest and donated land at 16th Street and Van Buren for use as the area's first Catholic cemetery. The priest traded that land for a bigger parcel that is now St. Francis Cemetery near 48th Street and Oak. The Steineggers were given a large family plot there.

Hilda Steinegger grew up and became engaged to R. William Kramer, a sharp young lawyer who had moved to Arizona from Kansas for health reasons. Hoping to keep their only daughter close to home, the Steineggers gave them the property on Seventh Street as a wedding present. (Another gift, the complete 50-volume set of the Harvard Classics, a 1910 collection of the world's best nonfiction, still sits on Vic Kramer's shelves.)

After Alexander Steinegger died in 1912, his widow moved into a home next door to the Kramer house. (That home was eventually razed by Vic Kramer.)

Hilda Kramer, who had suffered four miscarriages before Victor was born, was carried by ambulance attendants on a mattress to the first St. Joseph's Hospital at Fourth Street and Polk. Vic Kramer says his mother told him she knew he was born at 6 p.m. on September 25, 1921, because she heard St. Mary's bells playing the Angelus when he arrived.

Kramer, who now sleeps in what was his parents' room, stayed in an upstairs bedroom as a boy. It is filled today with his original baby pram and boyish decor, including a button collection, photographs of dogs, a number of felt baseball card predecessors, and college pennants his uncle gave him.

Kramer says he was never bored. He and his buddies would gather in the basement, where it was cooler, drink lemonade and play cards or make model airplanes. When he was older and attended Phoenix Union, there were unlimited activities -- he was in glee club, appeared in the lavish "Masque of the Yellow Moon" annual pageants and edited the literary journal. He played tennis, Ping-Pong and baseball. He wanted to play football, but his parents refused to sign his permission slip, considering it too dangerous. Football games -- held down the street from his home at the now-demolished Montgomery Stadium -- were also a big form of community entertainment.

Young people would head to two amusement parks, Joyland, on East Van Buren, or Riverside, at Central Avenue and the river, for swimming and dancing.

Al Romo, another third-generation Phoenician who has been friends with Kramer since he was 5 years old, fondly remembers excursions to those parks. Now 78, Romo was one of the boys who used to hang out in Kramer's basement and accompanied his buddy on plenty of outings over the years. He says Kramer was always popular.

Kramer never married, but says he came close a couple of times, including once with a classmate, Margaret Taylor, who has her own spot in Phoenix history; Margaret Taylor Hance was mayor from 1975 to 1983. After dating through high school and college, Kramer says, he received a "Dear John" letter from Taylor while overseas during World War II.

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