Guided by moonlight, we easily slide through a seam in the chain-link fence surrounding the property and head for the back door of the grand old house.
Built by Tempe's only mayor of Hispanic descent in 1883, the now-battered brick-and-adobe home has become a tombstone marking the death of Tempe's original neighborhood. The eerie edifice lies in the shadow of Tempe's booming Centerpoint redevelopment project on Mill Avenue--home of Chase Bank and Harkins Theatres.
The city owns the house, which is located at 604 South Ash, but the only apparent effort to protect it from further damage is the fence that is so easily traversed.
Across the dusty yard, around the dying shrubs and beneath the gnarled trees, we wander into Tempe's not-so-distant but ignored past.
Inside the 111-year-old house, we are carried back to a time when a house needed big windows that actually opened, and porches helped hold families together. Only three families owned the home, and each must have loved living here.
Slowly, we meander through the neo-Colonial-style house, gingerly walking on the wood floors and breathing the warm, smoke-tinged air beneath the high ceilings. Graffiti scars the walls, and broken glass and trash litter the floor.
Someone set fire to a corner of the historic home last spring. But the bricks and adobe easily withstood the blaze; a quick response by firefighters prevented any major damage. Yet the building retains its integrity and strength, and the voices of the past seem almost audible.
Given the ease of access to the house and Tempe's apparent indifference to preserving it, it is probably only a matter of time before the house burns to the ground. It's happened to several other historic buildings in Tempe, says Scott Solliday, curator of history at the Tempe Historical Museum.
The old home was once admired by Tempe residents who used to stroll the shady, irrigated neighborhood northwest of Mill Avenue and University Drive. Then surrounding buildings were razed in the late 1980s for a ten-year redevelopment project spearheaded by DMB Associates, a Phoenix-based development company.
In its final years, the neighborhood was home to a mixture of lifelong residents--some of whom still kept geese, chickens and donkeys--along with an assortment of artists, students and bohemians lured by the earthy feel of the block.
"That is the only house that is left in that whole neighborhood, and that was the original neighborhood of Tempe," says Solliday.
The home's most notable exterior feature is a wooden, screened sleeping porch that encloses three sides of the house; it allowed occupants to take advantage of any prevailing summertime breeze. Inside, simplicity, balance and durability are obvious.
The home was built by Samuel Brown, a blacksmith who settled in Tempe in 1878 and worked in Charles Trumbull Hayden's flour mill. The son of an Anglo father and Mexican mother, Brown built a two-room adobe home on the site in 1883.
Brown was active in civic affairs. He served in the 20th Territorial Legislature, on the Tempe City Council, on the board of Tempe public schools, as Tempe marshal and as the longtime president of the Alianza Hispano Americana, a national Spanish-American mutual aid society that was active early this century.
He sold the home in 1901 to William H. Strong, a prominent rancher, farmer and shipping merchant who supplied hay and other services to the Salt River Valley. Strong also served on the Tempe City Council at the turn of the century. He occupied the house for 20 years before moving to a ranch in south Tempe.
Strong greatly expanded Brown's adobe, adding several brick rooms and the elegant porch in 1901. The house has remained essentially the same since that time, Solliday says.
The Frank Reeves family purchased the home from the Strong family and occupied it until the City of Tempe condemned and acquired all the property in the redevelopment area in 1988. Reeves was a prominent merchant in Tempe, operating an auto-parts store for many years.
Tempe redevelopment director Dave Fackler says title to the house will be turned over to DMB Associates when the developer is ready to proceed with the next phase of construction at Centerpoint. That could occur anytime in the next five years, depending on market conditions, Fackler says.
Tentative plans call for construction of up to 200 high-end condominiums and apartments renting for about $1,000 a month on the land surrounding the historic home. Fackler says once construction begins, the home will be restored to federal historic preservation standards.
Provided it is still standing.
DMB officials say they are seeking ideas on how to utilize the property during the next few years until another construction phase begins. One idea is to use the structure as a haunted house each Halloween, says DMB property manager Mary McGowne.
But there appears to be no interest by DMB or the city to invest money anytime soon to preserve the character of the home or protect it from further destruction. DMB is leaving the haunted-house proposal in the hands of the Tempe Jaycees, who would have to add a sprinkler system to the home before it could be used.
DMB, which has acquired tens of millions of dollars' worth of land in the Valley during the last five years, is content to leave the fate of the historic house to chance and the vagaries of the marketplace.
"We see great possibilities for the house, but we need to have the development fill in towards it" before preservation work can begin, says Mike DeBell, DMB executive vice president.
In the wake of last spring's fire, Fackler says Tempe and DMB have stepped up patrols around the house to keep transients, vandals and, presumably, reporters from entering. But even with added eyes watching the home, it is no trouble walking in on a recent Monday.
"It's virtually impossible to keep somebody out of a vacant building if they are really intent on trying to get in," Fackler concedes.
Tempe development officials appear to have bigger things to think about than the old house. Prospects for the controversial Rio Salado Project are looking up, says Tempe councilmember Dennis Cahill. Private funding appears to be materializing to build much of the $30 million in improvements needed to put water in a proposed lake along a 1.5-mile stretch of the Salt River. Once the lake is in, Tempe expects a $1 billion building frenzy to occur along its banks.
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Further stalling efforts to protect historic buildings in Tempe is the lack of a city historic preservation ordinance, which prevents the town from receiving state and federal grants for acquiring and renovating historic structures.
After 20 minutes in the old home, we casually walk out onto the porch and down the front steps. As we head toward the fence, we are drawn to an old vegetable stand where surplus produce from the garden was once peddled.
The old homestead was a giving place. It could be again.