Of its many owners, surely the strangest person to purchase Phoenix's first skyscraper, the Westward Ho hotel, was Roger Rudin, a fundamentalist preacher who briefly took over the building with a business partner in the late 1970s. Only after his death in 1998 was it revealed in New Times that Rudin had for 30 years lead a remarkable double life. Rudin had tightly controlled a secretive, Pentecostal cult, so dominating the lives of his parishioners that they didn't dare choose a mate or change jobs without his permission. Church members were so restricted, women couldn't wear pants or cut their hair, and homosexuality was denounced as the ultimate sin. What his flock never realized, however, was that under the name "Rudino," the strict minister was also a well-known and flamboyant member of the city's gay community, and had even, at one time, owned a gay bar. Rudino's homosexual friends, meanwhile, had no clue that he was the leader of a church.
Rudin is just one of the many colorful characters associated with the 1928 landmark which was the highest point on the city's skyline for much of the last century. Long a destination point for the city's visiting glitterati -- John F. Kennedy, Shirley Temple, Al Capone and Richard Nixon all stayed there -- the building fell into decrepitude as it frequently changed hands in the 1970s. Then, some twenty years ago, it was set aside as HUD housing for disabled adults and senior citizens.
It's that cast of characters, the current keepers of the Westward Ho's history and legacy, that photographer Troy Aossey has documented in his exhibit Westward HOme,' which opens Friday, July 4th at Modified Arts.
"The Westward Ho in its entirety is just kind of ghostly, kind of left there," Aossey says. "The hotel represents kind of what the people are too -- which is kind of wonderful but eerie and sad, too." His images, taken in the now-demolished former ballroom of the Ho, capture not merely moments in time, but whole lifetimes of joy and sadness, of adventures and disasters. The subjects are lit in soft, warm tones, many seated on pieces of furniture that had been discarded by residents who moved away. Many of the people in the photographs have lived there for years; some have now moved away, three have passed away.
The Westward Ho and its residents first intrigued Aossey when he worked in the neighborhood as a photographer's assistant; years later he was sent there to photograph a specific resident for Phoenix Magazine. "It got me in the door and gave me some sort of legitimacy," he says. While there he made plans with the facility's management to return and take photographs of the residents. The manager posted a sign telling the residents that if they wanted their portraits taken to show up at the ballroom on the day Aossey returned. He also asked the manager to tell the residents to bring anything meaningful to them along. "There was a line out that door pretty much all day, it was phenomenal," Aossey recalls.
Some residents brought their pets, some brought musical instruments. One, a former baton twirler, showed up with her baton and asked Aossey if she could change into her twirling uniform, which she did. The woman, named Louise, is captured with a broad smile on her time-worn face, white gloves holding a white baton in one hand, a white top hat in the other, arms welcomingly spread. Another resident, Earl, came with his accordion, which dominates his portrait, although you can see a concentrated smile beneath the shadow of his floppy-brimmed hat.
Prior to the photography sessions the residents were briefly interviewed. Aossey later returned to interview the more garrulous of them further. "I pretty much just asked them to tell about themselves, any experiences they'd like to tell about, their experiences at the Westward Ho." He cut and compiled the interviews into a tape loop that will be playing at the exhibit's opening over a P.A. system. "It's just kind of ambient stories about some of these people you're seeing, which I think really is a strong factor in the show."
The snippets of the interviews are as eerie as they are revealing; the aforementioned Louise is heard saying, "We have a lot of ghosts here at the Westward Ho, one ghost we call Bingo Mary. Not many people know about her, but with my psychic capabilities I picked up on her real quick," and "I have a lot of stories I could tell, but some of them I don't dare tell."
Another of the portraits features Scotty, a centenarian black woman who is pictured in a loud, colorful, tight shirt with a wide spread collar, oversized white sunglasses hanging from her belt, one arm behind her back, her eyes directed at the ground in a pose of detached cool. Aossey says that despite her hundred-plus years Scotty smokes cigarettes and drinks. In her interview she says, "I lived to be over one hundred by doing nothing the doctors tell me to do," and later recounts, "Happiest time of my life? The eight years I danced in the chorus line at the legendary Apollo Theater."
"The photos aren't outwardly really joyful or happy," Aossey reflects. "They have that sense but they're also kind of sad. I think these people had just these incredible lives before they ended up at the Westward Ho, now here they are living out the rest of their years there."
Aossey's show is paired with Brooklyn-based artist John Andrew's Polaroids of "mobile shelters of discarded material" -- mail and shopping carts that have been converted by New York's homeless nomads into roaming homes. Andrew has an ambitious plan to study these nomadic shelters and then design new ones. He'll then distribute them to homeless and document their use for another year.
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