Culture News

Kimber Lanning Saves Wurth House on Roosevelt Row in Downtown Phoenix

For several weeks the house at 314 East Roosevelt Street sat raised off its foundation as curious neighbors and tourists wondered why. Months before, it was one of three buildings at the heart of a controversy about the future of Roosevelt Row.

Even as developers eyed and purchased lots along East Roosevelt Street near Third Street, advocates sought to save the buildings they considered historically significant — although none had been officially designated historic properties.

The building at 222 East Roosevelt, which housed a business called GreenHaus until mid-February, has since been demolished to make way for one of two housing developments going in at the intersection of Roosevelt and Third streets.

But the house at 314 East Roosevelt Street was saved and moved from the north side of the street to the south at around 5 a.m. on Saturday, May 31. It’s a surprising turn of events, considering the fact that former owners Sam and Debra Moyer secured a demolition permit for the property earlier this year.

The home, built in 1911, now sits to the west of Modified Arts, a gallery owned by Kimber Lanning that also serves as the Phoenix office for Local First Arizona, a nonprofit organization she founded in 2003 and continues to head today.

Lanning owns both the home and the corner lot it sits on. When Lanning learned the owners planned to demolish the home, she approached them about moving it to a new location instead.

“I just knew that it fit the character of our neighborhood,” Lanning says of the home. But making it happen took time. “It was a little bit of a nail-biter,” she says. The owners didn’t really know her and were wary after dealing with others who’d tried to influence what became of the home.

Lanning says it took a month or two for the owners to decide they wanted to work with her, but later other obstacles prevailed – including a health setback for the man who’d be moving the house across the street.

A non-disclosure agreement prevented Lanning and others in the know from revealing plans for the home prior to its move across the street. Greg Esser and Cindy Dach knew about the move, having talked with Lanning earlier on about possibly collaborating to put to use the corner where the home now sits.

“We were thinking of collaborating on new construction,” Esser says. But once they heard the house was slated for demolition so that its longtime owners could prepare the land for sale and future development, they realized it would be more beneficial to the community to move the house to the lot where they’d considered a new build.

The Moyers ended up donating what’s being called the Joseph W. Wurth House to Lanning in memory of Vic Armstrong, a man now deceased for whom Sam Moyer worked for many years. It saved them from having to spend $10,000 or more on demolition, Lanning says. But Lanning estimates that her own expenses to date, including inspections and the removal of a later addition to the house, are more than quadruple that amount. 

She’s quick to praise John McCullough, whose Move-a-Home company transported the house from one side of the street to the other. He’s moved more than 200 structures, she says, including homes displaced decades ago by construction of State Route 51. It’s likely this was his last move, according to Lanning. He's retiring, she explains, and his son isn't planning to take over the family business. “I just could not say more wonderful things about his role in preserving Phoenix.”

With the prevalence of new developments coming to Roosevelt Row, including Linear and Iluminate by Colorado-based Baron Properties, Lanning says she’s eager to see as many existing buildings as possible preserved because they’re important for maintaining the unique character of the neighborhood.

Lanning says she’s yet to decide how to repurpose the house, but says options include creating an office, gallery, restaurant, or storage space. She expects it’ll be a year or so before it's finished.

At the moment, it has broken windows and graffiti both inside and out, and the house needs basics like plumbing and electricity. But the foundation it needs to sit on is already in place, concealed underneath the dirt that covers the lot.

Despite the complexities, Lanning says buildings constructed in that area from around 1950 on should be saved — even if it means moving them to new lots.

“The Bodega is worth saving,” she says of another house, currently located at 420 East Roosevelt Street. It’s the third building protestors sought to save earlier this year, but it risks being demolished if sold.

Lanning says moving older buildings facing demolition to vacant lots might make sense in additional cases, citing Hotel San Carlos owner Robert Melikian as an example of a local property who has expressed a willingness to consider something similar for vacant lots he owns. Lanning notes that Melikian has a lot large enough to accommodate the Bodega, but adds that the decision of whether or not to save the house “will be partly up to the development company buying the land.”

Alliance Residential Company is presenting its plan for developing the lot to the Evans Churchill Neighborhood Association on Wednesday, June 10, during one of its monthly meetings, which are open to the public. 

Plenty of other neighborhood changes are in the works as well. Esser is still working to secure a variance from the City of Phoenix so he can move three shipping containers used as pop-up art galleries from the north side of Roosevelt Street to the south, where they’d form part of a multi-use structure that on the lot located between Eye Lounge and Modified Arts. In the interim, he’s working with individual artists on summer exhibits rather than keeping the shipping containers closed for the summer as originally planned.

One block north at 333 East Portland Street, Michael Levine is preparing to reopen the Beth Hebrew synagogue first used during the 1950s, which has been boarded up and graffiti-laden for many years.

There’s an effort underway to create something called a business improvement district, which would create a formal structure for the management of Roosevelt Row and the Evans Churchill neighborhood. It’s currently undertaken on a volunteer basis by people that include Esser, Dach, Lanning and monOrchid owner Wayne Rainey.

During a community forum held May 28 at Roosevelt Community Church, Tim Sprague, principal with the real estate development firm Habitat Metro, told those gathered that he expects new development to bring another 2,000 to 3,000 residents to Roosevelt Row and the Evans Churchill neighborhood during the next 12 to 18 months. “That’s 50 percent more than the present population,” he says. Habitat Metro is continuing development of its 3-phase Portland Place Condominiums adjacent to Margaret T. Hance Park.

“This part of the world is changing dramatically,” Sprague says.

Those eager to see how it all unfolds in coming months can follow the Facebook pages for Roosevelt Row CDC and the Evans Churchill Community Association

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Lynn Trimble is an award-winning freelance writer and photographer specializing in arts and culture, including visual and performing arts
Contact: Lynn Trimble