It sounds like the title of a Nancy Drew potboiler, but the mystery of Paradise Gardens is really just another story about some cool old houses and how they survived a half-century in a teardown town. The mystery is whether or not these houses, built in the mid-'60s and long rumored to be Al Beadle designs, were, in fact, drawn by the famed architect at all.
Beadle had recently come into his own with the Triad Apartments (still standing at 4402 North 28th Street), the final Case Study home commissioned as part of an ongoing project by Arts and Architecture magazine. The Triad — only the second multi-family residence commissioned for the project, and the only Case Study home built outside of California — showcased Beadle's modernist design theories: unadorned architecture suited to the needs of desert topography and daily habitation.
He'd stepped briefly away from these principles to design the gorgeous 22-story Executive Towers at Second Avenue and Clarendon, but Beadle, perhaps eager to return to his roots, signed up with Robert Altherr, whose A-1 construction had broken ground on several successful developments in neighboring communities. Altherr knew of Beadle's passion for austere architecture, and wanted to exploit it in a distinctive tract of single-family homes to be built in a then-northeasterly Phoenix tract. The development would be called Paradise Gardens, a subdivision between 32nd and 36th streets and north of Mountain View, and would come to be loved by mid-century architecture fans and shrouded in just enough mystery to make it interesting even to people who don't care what year your house was built or whether or not it features a deep overhang and a stepping façade.
The concrete block houses, sited on large-ish lots and priced at less than $20,000, offered distinctive designs: deep overhangs; exterior half-walls made from "Haver Block," a cinder brick with a circular cutout designed and popularized by architect Ralph Haver; glittery, quartz-studded flat rooftops, and detached carports. Beadle designed four models, all named for cactus — the Ocotillo, the Cholla, the Palo Verde, and the Saguaro. But are they, in fact, Al Beadle buildings?
"Frankly, we don't know," says Alison King, owner of Modern Phoenix, a Web site/online magazine about mid-century architecture (modernphoenix.net). "No one denies that Al Beadle was involved in the initial design of Paradise Gardens, that he did some drawings for it, yet there are no blueprints with his name on them. The story goes that he stepped away from the project and didn't want his name associated with it."
In an excellent article about the development published at modernphoenix.net, author David Tyda suggests that Beadle, who died in 1988, fled the project when Altherr began trimming the budget on production of the finished plans. Tyda quotes Beadle's wife, Nancy, as saying, "The developer began cutting corners, and that affected the integrity of the design."
Whether the houses were designed by Beadle may be moot, considering the many modifications done to Paradise Gardens since its completion. While it's the only example of tract housing that demonstrates Beadle's influence, the houses there are now essentially first-rate variations on a Beadle-esque theme.
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What I find most fascinating about Paradise Gardens is that several of the homes have been modified to look more Beadle-like, as if their current owners were undoing the damage done by Altherr to Beadle's original intention. Homeowners are actually removing peaks from roofs and erecting block walls, making "Beadles" out of houses the architect himself didn't approve of.
All of which makes a crazy kind of sense, since these were homes designed to be modified, sold with a promise that the homeowner would have ultimate power over the finished design.
Don't like that flat roof? We'll add a peak up front! Want a taller block fence around that patio slab? No problem. I can't help but think of Anthem, the planned community north of Phoenix that "revolutionized" tract home design by allowing homebuyers to customize their houses. The difference, of course, is that Paradise Gardens — doomed to a pretty kind of obscurity from the beginning — had real style.
"It still does," according to '50s fanatic Marshall Shore, who teaches seminars on mid-century design. "Paradise Gardens is great, but once you start worrying about whether or not your house is an actual Beadle, you're not enjoying its beauty. I stick by that old rule: Don't buy art because it's valuable, but because you like it."