Al Beadle’s Mountain Bell Building Implodes Before a Cheering Crowd

The worst part was the cheering.

On the other hand, there wasn't much to love about that particular Sunday morning in the first place. It was hot out, of course, and we were all standing in tight little crowds, a hundred or so strong, on oily stretches of concrete. Making small talk and sweating. Waiting to watch another gorgeous old building be demolished.

It was a humiliating way to spend the morning, one made all the more awful when, as the detonation commenced and the Mountain Bell Building crumbled into a pile of rubble at Third Street and Earll, the throngs of people gathered there began to holler with joy. As if they were rooting for a favorite footballer as he headed for a touchdown. As if they were watching something lovely and special, rather than seeing yet another bit of our architectural history being torn from the increasingly new-fangled skyline. An Al Beadle building, no less.

Alfred Newman Beadle, for the uninitiated, was a renowned American modernist architect and among the best-known commercial and residential architects in Arizona. His stylishly severe, postwar steel-frame houses grew out of the Case Study experiments launched in the late '40s by Arts and Architecture magazine, which commissioned residential designs from major architects of the time. Beadle's was the only Case Study house built in Arizona, a three-unit residence known today as the Triad Apartments. He had an enormous impact on desert modernism, and went on to create major works in Chicago, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Albuquerque. Among his many well-known local beauties is the Paradise Gardens housing development, the now-demolished Safari Resort, and the Executive Towers, a gorgeous 21-story high-rise that Beadle designed in 1964, when he was 32 years old.

I attended the Beadle implosion with my friend Paul, who, like me, grew up on the west side and for whom nearly every building in this sprawling city has a story. As we'd walked up the street toward the big, Al Beadle building that was about to get blown up, Paul and I did what we often do when we're together: We pointed out buildings to one another and we talked about them.

"That used to be Mother Esther's," Paul told me, nodding at a gorgeous little boarded-up bungalow on Third Street. "She read palms in her front room." I indicated a cute, peaked-roof red brick house. "Didn't that used to be a hair salon?"

"It still is," Paul said. "For little old ladies. Really, really old little old ladies." Here was the low, coffee-table-shaped office building where I'd gone to get my braces tightened once a month in 1978; there was the structure Paul always called "the Flintstones building," because it looks like a set piece from Bedrock with its cartoony, hyper-angled windows and puffy masonry construction.

And so on, straight down Third Street until we arrived at what was left of the former Mountain Bell Plaza building. The smoky, mirrored glass windows were already gone; only the steel beams and concrete floors remained. When it was built in 1972, the rectangular 10-story block of blackened glass and steel was one of the first International Style high-rises in town. For three decades, it housed Mountain Bell (later Qwest Communications); after Qwest moved out in 2003, San Diego-based developer Joe Pinsonneault bought the building for $12.5 million. It's been sitting empty pretty much ever since, collecting piles of debris in its parking lot and civil citations for blight. Rumor is that Pinsonneault plans to erect a 600-unit, high-end retirement community on the nine-acre site. Apparently, Phoenix is expecting an influx of very wealthy septuagenarians sometime soon; if they show up, perhaps they can go to the little red brick hair salon on Third Street to get their hair done.

The murder of the Beadle building was over in seconds. At exactly 10 a.m., we heard a series of loud bangs, and then the structure collapsed like a house of cards, replaced by a giant cloud of dirty smoke and a tangle of twisted steel beams. Everyone hooted and hollered, and Paul said to me, "Let's get out of here."

I heard later that the controlled implosion, created by detonating dynamite in the basement, first floor, stairwells, and elevator shafts to demolish the building's support beams, was filmed for a reality TV show about a family who make their living blowing up buildings. Paul and I moaned and rolled our eyes and talked about how soon there'd be nothing left of the Phoenix we knew, and then I went home and walked around for a week feeling bad for Al Beadle.

I decided to ask Marshall Shore, a Mid-Century architecture fanatic and award-winning librarian strategist (seriously, that's his job title) what he thought; I knew he had to have witnessed the Beadle implosion.

"I was worried about breathing in all that dust, so I watched them blow up Mountain Bell from the Executive Towers," Marshall told me. "I watched one Beadle go down from another Beadle, still standing."

Marshall said he thought it was a good sign that so many people showed up to watch the Beadle implosion; that he hoped they weren't just there for the spectacle of the thing but rather because locals were finally starting to think about how tearing down local history isn't such a good idea.

It occurred to me that, closed off in someone's penthouse that morning, he hadn't heard the excited roar of the crowd.

"They cheered?" was all Marshall said when I told him. He sounded sad and a little surprised. And then I, having destroyed a perfectly charming person's day, hung up and went back to being morose about the demise of Al Beadle.

It wasn't just the loss of another old building by a renowned architect that's been haunting me, again and as usual. It was that this time it happened in a crowd of people who seemed not at all saddened by its destruction. Usually it's just me, sitting alone in a room, tapping out diatribes about evil developers who don't care about the significance of a frat house designed by Ralph Haver or whatever. This time, I was surrounded by people who actually cheered when a building that was a significant part of our skyline was blown up.

I kept thinking about how, as Paul and I headed back to my car, the man walking in front of us had turned to his companion and said, "Now, that's a great way to start a day!"

We're all doomed.

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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