History Lessen

Mr. Blackwell has his annual Best Dressed List. Condé Nast Traveler has its Best Destinations List. And Phoenix, Land of a Thousand Demolitions, apparently keeps a list, too — of important buildings that are in danger of being demolished. The Most Endangered Historic Places List is compiled each year by the Arizona Preservation Foundation, a statewide save-the-buildings organization founded in 1979 in an attempt to rescue some of our architectural and archaeological history from the wrecking ball. The group's just-released 2007 list of 16 districts and individual buildings — compiled, like the Foundation's past inventories, from nominations by building-huggers like myself — includes a couple of shockers (a well-loved performance space; an entire neighborhood of charming old Tempe tract homes) as well as the usual abandoned schools and decimated ranches.

"We're a city built on the ruins of our own recent past," sighed Vince Murray, president of the foundation's board of directors, when I called him the other day. "We know that the issue of property rights is important to a developing community, but can we stop taking away our history during that development? We lose a piece of ourselves, and our history, every time we blow up another building."

History, shmistory. There's never going to be any regulation of what can and can't get bulldozed in our fair city. And it's clear that the teardown gods won't be satisfied until they've methodically razed the entire city, one building and development at a time. There's no appeasing their demolition-crazed desires; we must sacrifice some lovely old structure every couple of weeks, or they'll, I don't know, pox us with another Patriots Square Park? Force more former TV newsmen into public office?

It doesn't seem worth it. I say we review the most endangered list every year and choose from it two or three buildings that in any other city would be adorned with special plaques and set fire to them. Kind of like Sophie's Choice, except with bungalows instead of children.

I'd start with the Glendale Tract Community Center, a 1,900-square-foot structure located off of 50th Avenue in Glendale that's on the Most Endangered List this year, too. Okay, so it's one of the few New Deal buildings left from the Great Depression, but it's a plain-Jane adobe that looks like a hundred other low, flat-roofed structures out that way. And I'll trade a subdivision clubhouse any day for Kerr Cultural Center, a favorite of mine that's (unfathomably!) also on this year's list. Ditto that delightful Bedrock-like bank building at 44th Street and Camelback about which I've written almost weekly, and the Maple-Ash neighborhood, made up of three subdivisions in proximity to Arizona State University and comprising the largest concentration of historic homes — the Gage Addition, the Park Tract, and College View — in that city.

In order to save any of these landmarks, I'd offer in trade the White Gates House, one of the first homes designed by architect Al Beadle. Stuck on a massive lot out in the Northeast Valley's McMansionland, this once-impressive structure looks today like nothing more than a double-wide mobile home, thanks to its peculiar, box-like façade. Its formerly excellent landscaping has all been scraped away and, from all reports, the interior has been gutted, too — so what's to protect? The sniffy neighbors are starting to complain that the owner uses the lot as a giant storage space, so why not let some land-hungry developer have this one in exchange for, say, the Buckhorn Baths, another worthy landmark that's listed by APF as "endangered."

I could tell, when I spoke to Murray, that he thought my idea of sacrificing buildings was kind of silly. But he did agree with me that some of the buildings on his list belong to me. And to you! Like the 14 different ASU buildings that made the list — including Matthews Hall and (horrors!) the Lyceum Theatre — which are public buildings and, therefore, mine and yours.

"Yeah, we should have a say whether those buildings get torn down," Murray admitted. "But we won't. Not in Phoenix, an aptly named city, since all we seem to do is rise from the ashes left from our own past, over and over again."

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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