You May Not Know Fred Guirey, But He Knew Phoenix
I used to walk past row after row of these weird, pointy-roofed tract homes every day on my way to and from grade school. After I grew up and developed an interest in architecture, someone pointed out that those houses were designed by Ralph Haver. After which I noticed that everyone seemed to know about Ralph Haver and his cool residential designs.
Later, I lived in a high-rise designed by Al Beadle. I knew it was a Beadle because everyone talked about it constantly; you'd be walking through the lobby and people would be standing around saying things like, "Was that before or after Al Beadle designed this building?"
Somehow, no one ever seemed to talk about Fred Guirey. One day I was on the phone with Alison King, co-founder of Modern Phoenix, the local mid-century architecture appreciation society, and she mentioned Fred Guirey. I said, "Who?"
It's a shame. Pretty much no one remembers Guirey. In the years before his death in 1984, he designed some of the most gorgeous civic and commercial buildings (and a handful of homes) in town, yet it's Beadle and Haver (and sometimes Blaine Drake) who get all the attention. Maybe because Guirey eschewed curvilinear lines and repeated imagery — design principles popularized during his heyday by more radical architects like Beadle and Drake — and played instead with the Wrightian notion of indoor-outdoor living, particularly in his home designs, which often pulled interior beams straight through walls and out onto porches and overhangs.
Guirey was among the most influential of Phoenix architects, lauded by his peers throughout a longish career and bestowed with a rare American Institute of Architects fellowship in 1969. Yet his name is rarely mentioned or recognized, and his work is only now being acknowledged by people who care about local architecture from the second half of the last century.
You may not know the guy's name, but you know his work. You've driven past the SuperLite Block building at the northeast corner of Seventh Street and Colter. You've probably seen the Art and Architecture complex at ASU. And, if you're very lucky, you've seen the handful of houses he designed, which speak of a real understanding of scale and the importance of integrating desert agriculture into a residential façade.
Yet Guirey remains largely unknown. It's unclear — especially when one sees, up close and personal, his houses — exactly why. While his designs are every bit as distinguished as Haver's more celebrated residential architecture, and as eccentric as some of Beadle's commercial designs, Guirey still lingers in their shadows.
There are some theories about why that is. Preservation historian Walt Lockley posits that Guirey didn't languish so much as remain focused, at least early on, on earning a living by designing more mundane civic and commercial buildings. Real estate mogul Scott Jarson, a big Guirey fan, thinks there just aren't enough of the architect's houses left for him to have as strong a presence as his more famous colleagues. And local preservation strategist Roger Brevoort thinks Guirey's been eclipsed because his work predates that of other, better-known architects.
"Guirey was here early, in the '20s, and we've only just begun to really look at the significance of homes built in the late '30s and '40s. Right now, mid-century homes are really the architecture fan's focus."
Guirey appears to be on the cusp of a rebirth, thanks to the attention his commercial buildings are receiving from MoPhos, particularly a new ModernPhoenix article by Lockley about Guirey's more significant contributions to the local landscape (www.modernphoenix.net/guirey). There's that ridge-roofed three-story at 444 West Camelback, its glass-and-steel walls like a giant block of ice. There's the 10-story glass box office building on the northeast corner of Central and Roosevelt that used to be the swanky, more angular, porcelain-and-aluminum Coronet Apartment Hotel in the '60s, but which — like so many of Guirey's beautiful original commercial designs — was reconfigured in the '80s into a more stripped-down, less-interesting version of itself. And there's perhaps no better tribute to Guirey's legacy than the SuperLite Block Headquarters, which is now a school. Built from the company's own steel-framed "vertical stack bond blocks," this stunning masonry box with its pencil windows and its waffled roof was even more distinctive before its cornices and shaded portico were torn off some time ago.
I think it's these unfortunate renovations that have helped keep Guirey's name off the map. The original Coronet would today be a landmark, with angled windows that gave the glassy surface a multi-faceted, jewel-like façade. But in its stripped-down remodel, it's just another glass box, hardly the type of architecture that causes one to stop and wonder, "Who designed that big shiny cube?" The SuperLite building, while still distinctive, was a real stunner before it was "updated" and stripped of its dressy trimmings.
One Guirey creation that has retained his signature style is his own home at 300 East Missouri, which King is featuring on her Modern Phoenix home tour this weekend. He built it by hand in about 1939, fashioning its square core building around a 51/2-ton sandstone fireplace he erected first. The house and its nearby guest quarters looked, according to Lockley, "like a couple of roadside cabins." Guirey added to his home in each of the next two decades, with a front bedroom and sunroom added in 1950, and a larger expansion in the early '60s. There are Wrightian influences everywhere: built-in furniture Guirey designed himself; austere brick and wood both inside and out, a rustic "great outdoors" orientation.
King worries that despite his importance to our landscape, Guirey will remain unheralded as more of his already-rare home designs are leveled or reconfigured.
She's even more concerned about Guirey's own home on East Missouri. It goes up for sale next week, and King wonders what will happen to its beautiful, swooping wood beams and gorgeous built-ins if they end up in the hands of someone who may not care about its provenance or its distinctive model. The house is too new (and Guirey as yet still too unknown) for the house to have achieved any historic designation. And so, King says, it may join many of Guirey's other homes as a pile of rubble.
"If the right person doesn't purchase this house, it's not just Fred Guirey's history and heritage going down," she says. "It's our history and heritage, as well."
Get the Arts and Theater Newsletter
Weekly information keeping you in the know when it comes to the Phoenix art and theater scene. Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events.