Tracing the roots of the Yum Yum Tree
I learned to ride a bicycle when I was 34 years old. I don't recall now why I refused to learn as a child, although my father remembers that I thought bike-riding was "childish," which sounds like something I might have said when I was 5 or 6; I was a very peculiar little boy.
Once I learned to ride, I favored nightly late-hour cruises around downtown Phoenix, far from the west-side suburbs where I grew up. Somehow, I always ended up at 90 West Virginia, an oddity in the heart of the residential Willo Historic District. I'd peek through the towering oleanders at what looked like a backyard full of bungalows (but which was actually a guest house, a pool shack, and a main house, all designed in Spanish Mission style with covered verandas around a marshy courtyard). I gawked like a school kid at the Mexican-style fountain and the tile-roofed portico with palm trees growing straight through it, and tried to figure out what I was seeing. A brothel? An abandoned retirement home? An old-time taco stand?
Actually, at that time it was a bed and breakfast popular with honeymooners and in-the-know visiting businessmen. The hunk of land now known as the Yum Yum Tree started out as a pre-World War I sheep farm, back before the city of Phoenix as we know it existed. Sometime around the mid-'20s, the buildings that eventually became the infamous Yum Yum Tree were constructed as the Fairhope School, a private academy for young ladies. The property reportedly remained a school into the late '30s, and was briefly known as Miss Preston's School for Girls before being sold to a local doctor who reworked the existing buildings into rental apartments. In 1949, the building was sold again, this time to next-door neighbor John Haldiman, and remodeled by noted architect Benny Gonzales, who added that oddball portico, a barbecue, and the swimming pool. It was Haldiman who renamed the complex the Yum Yum Tree, although no one I spoke to remembers why.
Sometime in the '70s, Haldiman traded a lawyer named Neal Roberts the Yum Yum for an office building on Central Avenue. Roberts lived and worked there, and, according to legend, it was in his office that the Don Bolles car-bombing murder was planned. I know, I know, there are a dozen local businesses (most notably Durant's restaurant on Central) that claim the Bolles murder was plotted on their premises, but most of the people I talked to about this weird old place mentioned the Bolles thing to me. Who knows?
My friend Donny didn't mention Don Bolles at all when I asked him why he hadn't gone through with his plan to buy the Yum Yum Tree last year and turn it into a swanky inn. He just sighed and said, "After a while, it started to look like too much work. The whole place needed redoing, and I just wasn't up for it."
Donny went so far as to design a color brochure for what he planned to call The Fairhope Guest House before he changed his mind and bought a condo instead. The fellow who wound up buying the place, a zoning attorney named Stephen Anderson, is turning the Yum Yum into a private residence for himself and his family.
"I used to rent an apartment at the Yum Yum," Anderson told me the other day, "for about five years in the early '90s. My wife and I were dating then, and we really loved the place." It was their affection for the Yum Yum Tree that led the couple, who have lived in Willo for years now, to buy it.
"There were some pretty aggressive plans afoot to really change the place," Anderson says, "and we wanted to make sure what was left of the school's original footprint was preserved."
Toward that end, Anderson is having the porch-covered fish pond, added some time in the '60s, removed, and is planning to keep at least one of the exterior fountains. He's jettisoned the high walls of oleander, so passersby can see right into the backyard, where workers crowd around the veranda (they're replacing the long row of original transom windows, torn out decades ago) and the oddly narrow swimming pool. Each time I drive by, the former Yum Yum Tree looks more and more like just another big house. But I'm glad that someone who's part of the building's history, in a way, will be caring for it in its newest incarnation. Which is precisely why Anderson bought it.
"Probably some people think I'm crazy," he says. "But we wanted to make sure that the Yum Yum Tree remained here. In spirit, anyway."
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