I've obviously seen too many gangster movies. Either that, or I've lived in Phoenix too long. Because when the Knipe House burst into flames a couple of weeks ago, I hollered, "I knew it!"
So did my friend Kim Kasper. Kim, like me, is a building hugger. One of the more embarrassing things she and I have in common is what we call our "fire lists," which are private inventories we've kept for years of historically significant old buildings that we fully expect to get burned down in the middle of the night.
It's ridiculous, I know. But if you've been romancing old houses and decaying, hundred-year-old storefronts as long as some of us have, you'd have noticed how often they get torched in this town. I mean, it happens way too often to be a coincidence.
Kim's list is longer than my own, but she draws the line at the conspiracy theories with which I fill the margins of mine. Because, though I stop short of using the phrase "serial arson," I do think that someone, somewhere, is paying thugs to burn down old houses that are protected by historic designation.
I know, I know. But how about this: By my own count, this is the sixth old building this year that's mysteriously caught fire after being purchased by either the city or by a private developer who's been told he can't tear the joint down because it's on some protected-buildings registry or another. And it's the third such building to catch flame on the same city block this year alone. Come on.
The Knipe House, known by some as the Laura Burton House (presumably because Miss Burton once lived there), is the latest of these. It caught fire at two in the morning on June 23 and was so badly damaged by the second-floor fire that it's certain to be torn down. Which is a crime, because it was not only a great-looking house, but the former home of Leighton G. Knipe, a still largely undiscovered local architect of some note.
Knipe, who's best known for designing the Jefferson Hotel (in 1915, one of Phoenix's first high-rises) and ASU's long-demolished Krause Hall, built the house in 1909 for his parents, but ended up moving into it himself. There, he designed Tempe City Hall as well as a good portion of Litchfield Park; this guy had a real impact on the southwest, and one of these days someone will do a little digging and give him his due. Meantime, his former home, a 1,200-square-foot former beauty located at 1025 North Second Street, is a pile of sticks.
The Knipe House has been empty and in disrepair for decades, although it was briefly in the news in 2006 as part of RO3, an ambitious and interesting historic housing project launched by residential developer Reid Butler. Those plans, now scuttled, marked the Knipe House for renovation as a restaurant. The cost to restore the building back then, before the fire, was pegged at about $1.5 million; one imagines that it would easily cost half again as much just to make the building structurally sound again.
But, because the Knipe House was protected by its historic designations (among them a recent citation by the Phoenix Historic Neighborhoods Coalition as one of our "12 Most Endangered Properties"), it was on people's radars and protected from teardown. Which led me to put Knipe on my list of houses that I expected to be torched sometime soon.
I shared my nutball theory that someone is paying someone to burn down protected buildings with Jack Ballentine, director of investigations for the Phoenix Fire Department, and he stunned me with his response. Usually, investigators and flacks pooh-pooh the very thought that such nefarious nonsense might go on in our town. But not Ballentine.
"It's definitely possible," Ballentine said. "Especially when you consider that all these old buildings are full of asbestos, and we make them pull it all out before renovation begins — which is very expensive."
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But there's just no evidence, Ballentine told me, that anyone paid Bugsy the Boob to torch the Knipe House so they wouldn't have to restore it. "It was transients," he swore. "We found mattresses with cigarette burns all over the upstairs."
Okay. But why would transients break into a fenced-off two-story and climb upstairs to smoke crack? Kim says that the junkies in her historic neighborhood do it right out on the sidewalk, in broad daylight.
I know. Here I go again. But, seriously: Transients — in June — in Phoenix?