Blaine Drake’s Curvilinear Scoville House Is Gone, and So Is a Little of Phoenix’s Architectural History

We can add Blaine Drake's glorious, curvilinear Scoville House to that long list of Beautiful Buildings That Have Been Obliterated from the Local Landscape. The house, the second mid-century Drake in the Biltmore neighborhood to be demolished in recent years, was significant for a number of reasons, not the least of which was its peculiar "round room" layout.

But the Scoville House's curved interior walls are no longer standing at 5343 North 22nd Street. They were torn down in September.

"Another piece of history, ripped from the ground!" moans Robert Dyer, a designer who grew up around the corner from the Scoville house and played there as a kid. "These migratory people, who come here and get jobs making change at Costco, are the root of the problem. They establish a little credit and think, 'We'll build a big house with a flat-screen TV in every room!' Then they buy a beautiful, important house and tear it down to make room for their big, new McMansion. Their Tuscan McMansion! But do these people have any real taste? Do they care about our city's history? They're multi-generational banal!"

Dyer's outrage is a single voice in a loud chorus. Ever since news of the Scoville demo broke on mid-century fan forum ­, a major freak-out ensued from architecture enthusiasts. That's because Drake, who died in 1993, had a rare pedigree among local architects. An apprentice to Frank Lloyd Wright at the original Taliesin in Wisconsin, he relocated to Arizona after World War II, establishing his Phoenix practice in 1945. It's estimated that Drake designed about 150 custom homes around town before retiring in 1985, having garnered international acclaim for his singular designs and gaining a reputation as one of only a few builders whose work influenced the development of Phoenix's mid-century landscape. The Scoville House, built as a spec home in 1952, was among Drake's most celebrated designs, which included the Unitarian Universalist Church at 40th Street and Lincoln and the Camelback Inn.

"Scoville was a very unique structure, with good use of material and space," says Drake's son Peter, a land planner in private practice and former husband of Scottsdale City Council member Betty Drake. Peter lives in the family home his father designed and built, and in which Peter was raised. It's the last of the five Drake houses in his neighborhood left standing, just down the road from where the Scoville place used to stand. (For an example of a Drake that's still standing, see 3237 East Meadowbrook Avenue, built in 1953 in Olivewood Estates.) "All those curving walls and flowing spaces!" Peter recalls. "I haven't been in that house in 30 years, and while I couldn't draw the floor plan from memory, I know people who remember it as among my father's most important works."

The house, named for its original owner, attorney Harold Scoville, was made of Superlite block, a concrete aggregate that was left unpainted, a trendsetting design element that some say inspired the current popular use of "expressed materials" in tract and custom building. The home's many curved walls were a rare and unusual design element that screamed "Moderne!" and its low ceilings and tiny bedrooms spoke of the Wrightian influence in Drake's residential designs.

The fate of the Scoville House had less to do with those 6 1/2-foot ceilings and unusual lack of closet space (reportedly, there were no closets in the original floor plan) than it did with structural issues of the house, which, design writer Walt Lockley says, the new owner originally planned to restore. The Scoville House was a victim, from all reports, not of older design elements or a careless homeowner, but rather of plain old shoddy construction.

"My father's first design was a house in Albuquerque, New Mexico," says Peter Drake, "and it's still standing and occupied." The Scoville house, on the other hand, was reportedly about to collapse onto its beautiful self. Lockley uncovered electrical issues, mold problems, and a saggy roof that was rotting from the inside and collected water in the smallest rainstorms. When a tree fell onto one of the house's bearing walls in a recent monsoon storm, the new owner abandoned plans to do battle with his new home's many structural shortcomings, and had it scraped.

"Bad construction can be overcome," Dyer says. "The man who designed this amazing building isn't here to design a new house for the people who carelessly ripped it down. They'll put up a Styrofoam McMansion in its place, and there'll be one more example of faux Tuscan architecture and one less example of what used to make Phoenix stylish and distinctive."

Peter Drake is, perhaps surprisingly, less emotional about the latest teardown of his father's legacy. "My father never expressed any kind of emotion about the loss of buildings he'd designed," his son says. "But my hunch is that, like any artist, he would have preferred that his better work be cherished and maintained. But given the changes in property laws here, and the philosophy of the general public about the value of good design, that's an option that's rarely even considered these days."

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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