Neal Green remembers when downtown Phoenix spilled into neighborhoods filled with hundred-year-old adobe houses surrounded by acres of land. He remembers groves of towering trees and the thrill of nighttime drives through the Papago Mountains and seeing downtown's lit-up neon signs as you crossed into Phoenix from Scottsdale. "It always made me feel like we were suddenly in the Big City," Green recalls.
Green grew up here in the mid-'50s, at what used to be Williams Air Force Base. His dad was in the Air Force, and the family lived in government housing on the base. He still remembers his old address — 250 Illinois Street — but today, when he thinks back on his childhood, he mostly remembers his grandmother's house at 3510 East McDowell Road.
"We moved around a lot because my dad was in the service," Green remembers. "My grandmom's house was the only stable home I knew." That house is one of a handful of true adobes left in town, one that Green's grandmother bought from a pair of sisters who built it themselves in about 1910, using a sawed-off broom handle as a makeshift measuring device and installing each of the casement windows themselves. The same sisters built and sold two other houses on either side of their adobe, both of them long since demolished. Green's grandparents bought the adobe and its adjoining 2.5 acres of tamarack trees in 1954, with plans to turn it into a daycare center. (The city nixed the idea because the property then used a septic tank as part of its plumbing, apparently a no-no at daycare facilities.) Instead, the couple built a tiny, red brick office building in front of the house. One side of the building housed Green's grandmother's real estate office, the other side his grandfather's barbershop.
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"All the fixtures were custom made in white oak and stainless steel," Green remembers. "The barber chairs were cast iron and red Naugahyde, and there was a red, white and blue-striped rotating barber pole on the front of the shop that lit up at night and was the first visual clue that we had finally arrived at their house."
His grandmother loved the house, which she swore was haunted by one of the sisters who'd built it and had died at home. "Grandmom saw the ghost often," Green says, "and she figured it was the dead sister, who had every right to be there, since she built the place." Green saw the ghost once, too — a white mist that formed by the front living room window late one night when he was visiting.
Green's grandparents sold the property in the mid-'70s to a local businesswoman, Jan Ashford, who ran her plumbing business not out of the storefront on McDowell but rather from the house behind, which she heavily remodeled. Green, a graphic designer who lives in Mesa, recently did a Google Maps search and, when the house and barbershop didn't show up, headed over to 36th Street and McDowell to make sure they were still standing. "They were," he says. "Just barely."
He was appalled at the generally decrepit condition of the buildings. The house has been badly painted, and several windows are broken and boarded up from the inside. Its bell-shaped front façade features have been damaged and crudely repaired, and the tamaracks are long gone, replaced by a run-down mobile home. The only greenery is the weeds growing in front of Taquería Yaqui, a Mexican restaurant that's housed in the old barbershop, its pretty red brick painted white and in desperate need of a new coat.
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Based on what Green's grandmother told him, the house is almost 100 years old, a true adobe with foot-thick walls and a flat roof. Why, he wonders, doesn't someone from the city step in to try to save this place?
The fact that this cozy old adobe and its sister building are landlocked by crumbling businesses in a crummy part of town may have something to do with it. Neither structure is currently listed with the State Historic Preservation Office, nor are they scheduled for demolition. Green is attempting to score some kind of "protected" status for the buildings, and wants to at least force the owners to fix the several busted-out windows.
Meanwhile, Green wishes he had the money to buy and renovate the old adobe himself. "I would restore it to the way it was when my Grandmom lived there in the '50s," he says. "Back then, the house was always painted pink — a pink stucco house with chocolate brown trim. Its most unique feature is that the front façade is shaped kind of like a bell, like the old Taco Bell façades, back when they first opened."
While I waited for a call back from Historic Preservation about the status of these forgotten buildings, I took another drive by Neal's Grandmom's place. A few days earlier, the taco shop had been shut down by the city, and the folks who ran it must have left in a hurry, because the front door of the house was wide open. I poked my head inside; the ceiling plaster was hanging in sheets, and every inch of floor space was jammed with rubbish and neatly stacked cartons of empty beer bottles. I'd like to tell you I didn't see a ghost there, but I did. I saw the ghost of Phoenix's recent residential past, when houses were made from mud and plaster by spinsters who were there because they loved the land.