By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
This is a story in which something marvelous happens. It's a story about how, not long ago, a bunch of bright, talented people came together to create a project both beautiful and useful.
This is also a story about how that beautiful, useful project, not too long after it was created, was allowed to fall apart and then was set upon by people who wanted to tear it down and replace it with something new and different, simply because the beautiful thing had begun to fall apart.
In other words, this is a story about historic buildings in Maricopa County.
Specifically, those buildings hunkering just beneath the shiny new light-rail tracks on the way into Tempe from Phoenix. You've seen them: the row of low, ramshackle structures clumped onto that little stretch of land known as Alpha Drive, on the perimeter of Arizona State University's Tempe campus between Sixth Street and University Drive, just west of Rural Road. If you didn't attend ASU or aren't familiar with Tempe, you might have thought, as you sped past them, that they were storage units for the nearby college or, perhaps, a cluster of tumbledown motels, heavily tagged with graffiti.
In fact, they were once a source of pride for both Tempe and ASU. They're what's left of the 10 Alpha Drive fraternity houses commissioned by the Arizona Board of Regents in 1961. They're the tattered, falling-down remains of a superbly designed project designed to provide housing for the college's fraternities as well as show off the finest architects working here in the middle of the last century, men whose work has since gone on to inspire and be celebrated, men like Ralph Haver and Kemper Goodwin and John Sing Tang and Edward L. Varney. And — perhaps most shockingly — work inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright and designed by the apprentices of Wright's Taliesin West.
While it's alarming that Alpha Drive's historically significant buildings may be knocked down, it's outrageous that anything associated with Wright's legacy could make it onto any demolition list. Wright, deemed "the greatest American architect of all time" by the American Institute of Architects, is both world-famous and a local treasure. Scottsdale's Taliesin West, his winter home from 1937 until his death in 1959, is a renowned architecture school. Both Tempe's Grady Gammage Auditorium (Wright's final public commission) and his associates' contributions to the Arizona Biltmore resort are widely celebrated. The rambling floor plans and use of native stone in his residential designs revolutionized Arizona architecture, and many of the Wright houses still standing in Phoenix have been carefully restored and are listed in national historic registries.
But not on Alpha Drive, where the frat house proudly designed by Wright's Taliesin Associates is — if correspondence between ASU principals is any indication — not the university's "problem," but rather just another old building. Once the higher-profile Taliesin house is gone, the e-mails seem to suggest, it'll be easier to pass off the rest of Greek Row as just another bunch of dilapidated old buildings that need tearing down. And so the Frank Lloyd Wright house — and all the other frats that surround it, houses carefully crafted by Arizona's best architects — is almost certainly doomed.
Arnold Roy remembers March 31, 1963, as if it were yesterday. That's the day that the Phi Delta Theta house opened; the day Roy hosted a public tour of the fraternity house with the building's designer, Wes Peters, then the chief architect at Taliesin West and a former apprentice of Wright's. He remembers Peters' pride in the place, which Roy calls "the centerpiece of that whole row of houses" and recalls how those who toured the street were wowed by what they saw.
They should have been. "Imagine (Alpha Drive) on opening day," local architecture historian Walt Lockley rhapsodizes in an online essay about Greek Row, "[in] the pinnacle year of Mid-Century design, all the properties fresh and crisp, a bit like an old-school housing display. Each architect approached the assignment with his own taste and imagination, each design unique and competing with each other on this short street."
Lockley, a homegrown architecture aficionado whose writing on local architecture appears in Desert Living magazine and the Modern Phoenix Web site (www.modernphoenix.net) goes on in his essay (which you can read yourself at www.waltlockley.com/asu/asugreek.htm) to enthuse about the deep talents of Kemper Goodwin, Fred Guirey, Ralph Haver, Ed Varney, T.S. Montgomery, Taliesin Associates, and the five other design firms whose high-concept, seemingly unrelated buildings had come together in such a big way.
"People knew this project was really special," says Roy, who's been with Taliesin since he graduated from high school in 1952 and is secretary of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. "They'd seen the other fraternity houses, all very nice, and then they saw what Wes had done here — the colors, the lines, the choice of materials — it wasn't lost on anyone that this place was something. Wes had a fine eye. You drove down that street and you saw this one and thought, Now there's history. And they want to tear it down — such a beautiful building."