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Downtown's Leighton G. Knipe House Undergoing Restoration, But Its Future is Uncertain

The historic Leighton G. Knipe House, which is being restored after a 2010 fire nearly destroyed it.
The historic Leighton G. Knipe House, which is being restored after a 2010 fire nearly destroyed it.
Benjamin Leatherman

There's a subdued glee in Bob Graham's voice as the local architect describes how his firm Motley Design Group is currently involved with helping restore a piece of Phoenix's history that was previously considered to be unsalvageable. Specifically, the 104-year-old Leighton G. Knipe House located in the Evans Churchill neighborhood just off Roosevelt Row.

"It's substantial work but also important work because it's a unique building," Graham says. "We're trying to help restore it back to its original state."

See also: - Historic-House Fire the Work of "Serial Arsonists"? - The Knipe House and Other Phoenix Buildings Are Going Up in Smoke

More than two years after getting torched by arsonists and nearly destroyed by the ensuing conflagration, the historic residence built in the early 20th century is in the midst of being repaired and restored by the City of Phoenix, which owns the property.

However, there's a few wrinkles: The project, which began last spring, involves only a limited restoration and stabilization of the building's structure due to a relatively small budget that came via the insurance settlement from the fire.

Rob Cox, a project management assistant with Phoenix's Community and Economic Development department, says that only has an estimated $350,000 to use in restoring the Knipe House to roughly the same state it was in prior to the fire in June 2010.

"That's all the insurance company would pay for and that's really all we're really doing, repairing the fire damage and that's it," Cox says. "Basically, the project is just to stabilize the structure, because with all the fire damage it had become unstable."

Few, if any cosmetic, refurbishments will be made, as city official state that such things will be the responsibility of whoever takes stewardship over the Knipe House when the project is completed over the next few months.

 

The Knipe house after the arson-related fire that nearly destroyed the building in 2010.
The Knipe house after the arson-related fire that nearly destroyed the building in 2010.
Steve Jansen

A majority of the restoration project has involved completely rebuilding the roof, floor, and back half of the house, which endured widespread damage from both the fire itself and exposure to the elements over the past two years.

"The entire roof was severely damaged in the fire and the brick walls had some damage as well. The project will also repair the masonry and brick walls, shore those up, and basically replacing all of the wood framing that burned from the fire," Cox says. "There was some framing on the interior and some of the front porch area that was saved, but the majority -- I'd say 60 to 80 percent of the wood framing -- had to be removed and replaced."

According to Graham, the Knipe House restoration has taken two years to get off the ground because "it took awhile for the city to negotiate a fire settlement."

However, once it got the green light and the project began last spring, Graham says, the focus was to restore the structure to "as close a replica to its original state as we can make" given the limited budget.

Knipe, a renowned Valley architect who designed such legendary local structures as Tempe City Hall and the now-destroyed Jefferson Hotel, built the house for his parents in 1909 before later making it his own residence.

Graham says the property is unique not only be because of history, but also it's "stylistically unusual."

"It was not a pure style because [Knipe] was doing his own thing," he says. "It's like an arts and crafts house, sort of a bungalow but not a bungalow, but also has some east coast elements."

 

Another view of the Knipe House after the 2010 fire.
Another view of the Knipe House after the 2010 fire.
Steve Jansen

Graham has been involved with the potential restoration of the Knipe House dating back to 2006, when downtown developer Reid Butler contracted Motley Design Group to do an assessment of the building. It was part of Butler's much-vaunted RO3 project, which sought to transform nearby vacant lots into a snazzy-looking mixed-use development and turn the Knipe House into a restaurant.

The upshot of his involvement in the now-scuttled RO3 endeavor, Graham says, is that Motley had a complete rundown of the building and its design already in its files, which had aided in the reconstruction.

"We were really lucky in that way," Graham says. "When most buildings burn down, you don't normally know what you lost. But since we knew exactly what was lost with the Knipe House we've been able to figure out what to put back and that's a rare thing."

Graham adds that they will completely restore the house's gable roof to its original wood shingled state, in addition to reinstating the structure to a single-family dwelling.

"Beyond that," he says, "There's going to be quite a bit of work for whoever takes on the project next."

Therein lies the rub, as Cox tells Jackalope Ranch that the future role of the historic building is currently hazy and could either serve as the home for residential or commercial, or simply wind up cold and vacant again, the state it was before the fire that nearly ruined it in June 2010.

As for the fate of the historic building beyond its partial restoration, Cox says that is entirely up in the air.

"We're evaluating that now," he says. "We hope to issue requests for proposals sometime after the project is complete, perhaps in the early the summer, in the hopes of having someone come in and take over the property and finish the restoration."

Whether that means transforming the Knipe house into an adaptive reuse project like a restaurant, gallery, or boutique depends on whoever responds to the city's request for proposals, Cox says. (It's also undetermined if the city, which purchased the property in 2004, will sell the house outright or retain ownership while leasing it out.)

"The house was a residential property when it caught fire, so we can only rebuild it, stabilize it, and return it back to a residential use," he says. "So it would really be up to the [proposal] process to determine what it could possibly be. We haven't determined whether it will be residential or commercial, so I'm assuming it could be [adapted] for either use."

According to Maricopa County Assessor's office, the property is currently under residential zoning. Since it falls within the boundaries of the city's "Arts, Culture and Small Business Overlay" -- a exemption where properties withing a roughly five-mile radius encompassing the downtown arts district are allowed "greater flexibility" in zoning to help foster small businesses and creative ventures -- it's entirely possible that the Knipe House could be home to a gallery, retailer, or another arts-oriented endeavor.

Cox doesn't rule out the possibility of using leftover funds from the insurance settlement towards cosmetic upgrades like a paint job but says that its highly unlikely.

"If there's money left in the budget after the stabilization of the structure is done and the insurance company authorizes us to use those additional funds for exterior paint, we would like to do that. But at this point we don't have the money to do it and the insurance company is only paying to repair the fire damage."

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Leighton G. Knipe House

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