A Building By Any Other Name

I was busted recently for not knowing my downtown buildings. Imagine my mortification.

I was remembering the neon-lit majesty of the Valley National Bank sign that twirled for a little more than a decade atop the Valley Bank Center at 201 North Central Avenue. An old friend of mine who, like me, grew up in Phoenix, listened politely and then smirked.

"That sign wasn't on top of the Valley Bank Center," he said. "It was across the street at the Professional Building, where Valley Bank used to have its offices."

He's right, of course. I'd somehow merged the two buildings in my memory, forgetting that the huge, rotating bank logo was added to the top of the Professional Building's tower in 1958, then dismantled and removed when Valley Bank erected its own building on the other side of the same block.

Whatever. They're both imposing and beautiful buildings. The Valley Bank Center (formerly Bank One Center, now Chase Tower) is the tallest building in the state. Completed in 1972, it's 40 stories of mirrored glass designed by high-flying architecture firm Welton Becket and Associates in partnership with noted local architect Fred Guirey's firm, which probably handled mostly structural drafting for the project, rather than contributing to the skyscraper's design.

The Center is a Modernist dream of steel and concrete with a glass sheathing that reflects the historic buildings that surround it. But the new tower was more than just a big, shiny building. In the early '70s, it was a statement about the city's new interest in revitalizing our downtown — the first indication that Phoenix cared about its former center of commerce since urban renewal had sent everyone fleeing for the 'burbs a decade earlier. Interrupted by the real estate crash of the late '80s, that renewed interest in revitalizing downtown resumed in the new century, and Chase Tower is a smug emblem of the promised (and long overdue) success of that revitalization.

Meanwhile, the Center's poor stepsister continues to languish. After Valley Bank moved into its new digs across the street in 1972, the Professional Building's occupancy dwindled. Used as an annex for the Tower, it was left vacant after a 2003 ground-level renovation expanded the Tower's office capacity. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1993, the building was purchased by a Scottsdale company that launched its multi-million-dollar renovation as The Hotel Monroe, a doomed project that's been on hold since 2008.

Not to worry. Like the old Chase Tower, the Professional Building — its Valley Bank predecessor — will rise again. Meanwhile, there's a bit of history in the Tower's sprawling basement. Once home to a shopping mall that served the building's employees, it's now an underground atrium tucked beneath the new lobby. I go there sometimes to eat at the disco-era Coin Room Cafeteria, from which I can stare up at the spot where that giant neon eagle used to spin atop the Valley National Bank building — or whatever it was called.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela