Visual Arts

2 Roosevelt Row Properties Slated for Demolition; Petition Seeks Adaptive Reuse and Mural Preservation

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Three murals risk being destroyed if 222 East Roosevelt undergoes demolition. An exterior east-facing wall features a mural with three birds painted by local artist Lauren Lee in 2012. The mural was commissioned after GreenHaus issued a call to artists, and has since become a significant way-finding tool and aesthetic element within the neighborhood best known for First Friday art walks.

Two interior murals, including one concealed by a faux wall the Reeds erected in order to exhibit art without damaging what's concealed behind it, were painted in 1950 by Ettore "Ted" DeGrazia before he bought land in Tucson to build the Gallery in the Sun that now houses much of the deceased artist's work. Surviving DeGrazia murals are a rarity, according to Lance Laber, executive director for the DeGrazia Foundation, who says most have been damaged or destroyed due to leaky roofs or inclement weather.

Laber notes that Baron Properties called him about the murals three months ago, saying they were going to build some apartment buildings on the corner and wanted to try and do their best to save the murals. But if we can't, he recalls them saying, they're coming down. Two months ago, they met with Laber at GreenHaus. He believes the firm is genuinely interested in preserving as much art as possible, and says they've even set aside money for doing so.

Still, Laber was frustrated to learn after arriving for their meeting that a 40-foot mural (which appears to depict key moments in the history of alcohol) was covered, which meant his collections and preservation people couldn't see it. But they were able to inspect another, smaller mural -- which depicts a ballet dancer in a champagne glass. The dancer is painted on drywall that can be removed from the surface to which it was attached. The larger mural was painted on drywall affixed to a brick wall. The problem of how to remove and relocate the larger mural, if that's even possible, has yet to be solved.

It appears that going the historical preservation route won't work, and Baron Properties has pointed out that "no historically-designated properties are being demolished." The building at 222 East Roosevelt doesn't have a historical designation and Kevin Weight, a historic preservation planner with the City of Phoenix, says the building's exterior doesn't meet the qualifications. He also notes that regulations for buildings on the Phoenix Historic Property Register govern only the exterior rather than interior. Still, Weight says he "hopes that the interior murals are preserved."

Cole Reed hoped the building itself would live on, but says the two people she approached about buying it told her they couldn't swing it financially. She's hesitant to share their names, concerned they'll be unjustly vilified for not coming to the building's rescue although it was never their responsibility to do so.

Petition ringleader Diehl says what happens next is a no-brainer. "The building will be demolished unless the developer can be persuaded to preserve it." He figures his best shot is letting the developers know people care.

Sims says the thriving arts scene was part of what attracted Baron Properties to Roosevelt Row, adding that they're not in the business of destroying art. They've spoken with Wayne Rainey, owner of the monOrchid gallery, about the possibility of exhibiting and selling works by local artists on site. Still, it appears now that only the mural that can definitely be removed will outlast the demolition.

Those who've crafted the petition are hoping the online signatures they've gathered will help persuade Baron Properties to build around the existing structure at 222 East Roosevelt Street. Diehl even had Ryan Tempest of the "urban awareness group" called This Could Be PHX create an image showing one such solution, according to group co-founder Quinn Whissen. We called architect Kym Billington, figuring it couldn't hurt to ask whether the wall containing the long DeGrazia mural could be incorporated into the apartment complex design somehow, but he referred us back to Baron Properties.

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Lynn Trimble is an award-winning freelance writer and photographer specializing in arts and culture, including visual and performing arts
Contact: Lynn Trimble