About a hundred years ago, when I was just out of short pants, I worked for a company called Associated Distributors. It's a Phoenix-based business, owned by Leonard and Angela Singer, that distributes recorded music; when I went to work for Associated in 1980, that music came in vinyl, cassette, and eight-track formats. The company's big labels were Motown and Arista, back when those labels were still independents.
None of that has much to do with architecture, which this column is presumably about. But here's where I'm going with this. Associated Distributors owned a pair of retail chains: Hollywood Records, with 10 stores in six cities, and Circles Records, whose flagship store was — and still is — located on Central Avenue in a glorious red brick building that's become a local landmark in a city that has precious few.
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Originally a Studebaker dealership when it was built in 1947, the Stewart Motor Company at 802 North Central was the brainchild of architect W.Z. Smith, who favored the Deco-inspired curves, long horizontal lines, and rounded windows of Streamline Moderne design. Moderne would fall out of favor by decade's end, and this building, which the Singers purchased in 1972, is among the form's more brilliant last gasps.
The neon-trimmed building's façade is distinguished by a round glass room that juts out onto Central Avenue and is currently home to a deejay booth but that originally housed a mammoth turntable on which big, shiny Studebakers were showcased, slowly spinning for passing motorists to admire. (When disco was big in the late '70s, we'd drive downtown to watch dancing queens do the Hustle in perpetual revolution on the big disc's dance floor; who needed drugs?)
"That turntable is still there," Leonard assured me last week. "We floored over it during one of the remodels, but it's there, and I'll bet the motor still works, too."
When the store was remodeled by Angela's son Michael in 1981, the adjoining office on the north side of the building was turned into what would become the Southwest's premier classical music store. I remember the hoopla when the revolving glass door that connects Circles Classical and Circles Records was rescued from a Manhattan department store that was about to be demolished and shipped here. At the time, and for a long time after Circles had the only revolving glass door in Phoenix.
Circles' interior is a tribute to Moderne's nautical lines, with a rounded, overhead balcony and continuously curving walls on which, when I was one of the store's managers in the mid-1980s, we used to display hundreds of 45 RPM records. On my first day there, I wandered upstairs and discovered a colossal office with a wide window overlooking the Circles sales floor; a room with no corners, its curvilinear walls were paneled floor to ceiling in dark walnut. There was a tiny bathroom with a shower and tub, even a closet. I called Angela immediately.
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"I've just discovered this beautiful, old abandoned office upstairs, and I'm going to move into it," I told her. Angela just laughed. "Oh, no, you're not. Get back downstairs and sell some records."
I continued to poke around upstairs at Circles, where I found a half-dozen more abandoned offices and a 9-by-12-foot vault safe, into which our night manager was once locked by a drug-addled robber. Although Associated Distributors, today known as ADI, has moved its operations into the vast warehouse at the back of the Circles store, the gorgeous upstairs offices remain unused.
Which isn't to say that the Singers have neglected their landmark building, which will be included in architect Don Rydenâ's upcoming book on Phoenix's better commercial architecture. About 15 years ago, the Singers had all the paint sandblasted from the exterior walls of the building. "We suffered for that," Angela confesses, "because that brick is a soft brick that's meant to be painted. But I hated that creamy, yellowish green color the store was painted, and when I saw it had red brick underneath, I said, 'Oh, my God, we have to show that off.'"
The music industry has changed considerably since the Singers started up ("It used to be so personal and fun," Angela says. "Then the accountants took over the record labels, and now all they care about is the bottom line"), but Circles remains a well-tended tribute to an era when car dealerships resembled ocean liners and downtown was a destination dotted with significant design.