I used to tell people that I grew up on the same block as a local TV legend who owned a giant flower shop in downtown Phoenix.
Neither of these things were true.
But as a very small child, I was convinced that Gladys Vaught, the old woman who lived across the street from my family, was Marge Condon, the hostess of a local afternoon television program called Open House. Marge was a '60s version of Martha Stewart, sharing household tips and doing cooking spots for an hour each weekday on Channel 5, immediately following The Wallace and Ladmo Show. Both Marge and Gladys had the same Southern accent and silver bouffant, but they were not the same person.
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"Honey," Gladys told me every time I tried to get her to come clean, "I know that Victoria Barkley is also called Barbara Stanwyck. But not everyone who's on TV has a different name when they're at home. I work over at My Florist!"
I took this to mean that Gladys, when she wasn't being Marge Condon, worked at her very own flower shop. Actually, My Florist was owned by Vada Pearl Schwartz, who opened the store in 1947. Vada commissioned her three-story-tall marquee from now-legendary Phoenix neon sign designer Glen Guyett, who was also responsible for the neon beauty adorning the downtown Valley National Bank building, the Buckhorn Baths in Mesa, Mr. Lucky's on Grand Avenue, and that cool "Let's Eat!" sign on Bill Johnson's Big Apple on Van Buren Street. Vada, whose favorite flower was the orchid, asked that Guyett make the sign as purple as he could.
The glass-fronted building on West McDowell Road operated as a flower shop until 1996, when California land developer David Lacey purchased it and turned it into My Florist Café, leaving Vada's very purple neon sign towering over the building. The restaurant remained a popular destination for more than a decade but went bust a couple of years ago when Lacey defaulted on the building's mortgage. It sat empty for a few years, then reopened early this month as The Habit, a hamburger joint.
News that the building had been purchased by a regional hamburger chain wasn't met with much joy from local historic preservation types, who knew Phoenix's tear-it-down attitude about landmarks and figured that the My Florist sign, despite its protection under the Historic Zoning Overlay, was about to knocked over. It's happened before.
But those of us who care about such things were as mistaken as I was about Gladys Vaught's true identity. When the development company approached the city of Phoenix about removing the sign during the building's renovation, they were turned away.
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"The city was insistent about the sign staying there," Brad Bauer, president of the Willo Neighborhood Association in which My Florist resides, told me the other day. "The developers wanted to hang a couple of smaller signs from the bottom of the original sign, but the City said, 'No, you're not adding anything. The sign is historic, as far as we're concerned. It stays, and it stays as it is.'"
This almost never happens in Phoenix. I've spent the better part of a decade documenting the many significant buildings and landmarks that have been scraped away by developers who don't care about our architectural history, as have other writers like historian Walt Lockley and Modern Phoenix director Alison King. Which makes the My Florist victory such a sweet one — and one as rare as a barely cooked cheeseburger.
Bauer expects the developer will try to appeal the city's decision to leave the sign as is. "Look at what they did across the street," he says of a recent renovation to the building across the street from My Florist, which most denizens of the surrounding historic districts have complained is bland and too contemporary. "They left nothing, character-wise, in that renovation. It looks like a strip mall in Chandler."
Hamburger joint, flower shop, East Valley strip mall — they can put anything they want to under that big, flashy My Florist sign, which I can see from the window of the breakfast room in my downtown home. To me, it'll always be the spot where Marge Condon used to peddle daisies.