Leave It to the Kids to Keep Up Phoenix's Architectural History

I love our Capitol building. Not just because it looks like something erected by MGM in 1930 onto which someone has dropped a colossal tin-foil hat. But because it is, like so very much of Phoenix, not at all what it appears to be. Our infamous copper-domed Capitol, designed by noted courthouse architect James Riely Gordon and built in 1900, is actually a museum now, and has been since 1981. The real Capitol building is the squat, ugly cinderblock box built in 1960 and immediately adjacent to the imposing structure everyone thinks is the home of both houses of the Legislature. The Arizona Capitol building isn't really the Capitol building.

Very Phoenix.

I also love the dicey neighborhood surrounding the Capitol building. Drive two blocks in any direction from the staid, manicured courtyard of our state's home office and admire the bombed-out shells of once-glorious houses, their windows broken and their roofs sagging. Lock your car doors! The drug whores here are a bitter bunch, having recently had their electricity turned off. They don't seem to know or care that they're living in a real-life metaphor for their very own city, a place that lets its historic architecture collapse into ruin.

Maybe they'd be happier about having to shoot up in the dark if they knew that the city is as broke as they are. So broke, in fact, that it's gone shilling for pennies from school kids. Literally! In preparation for next year's centennial celebration, our cash-hungry city has launched a collection drive designed to make panhandling look like fun to small children. The money collected will be used to pay for cleaning the copper dome on the ersatz Capitol building. I can just imagine every 7-year-old's delight, can't you? "Oh, hurray! We get to go ask people for money so that the state can pay to have an old building cleaned! Wheeee!"

Like so much of what happens here, there's a cute hook: Money collected by kids should be in the form of copper pennies, because the dough will be used to resurface, reseal, and polish the surface of the copper dome. Fun! Even the name of the money drive is neat-o: The Arizona CENTennial Penny Drive. Get it? I can hardly stand all the puns and clever wordplay.

It's so like Phoenix to own but rarely to have cleaned a giant, historic structure made partly out of a weather-sensitive material. "Due to budgetary constraints," a press release for the penny drive boasts, "(the dome) has not been cleaned in almost 20 years. In making the dome presentable for the upcoming Centennial festivities, it was decided that there is no better group to be entrusted with the task than Arizona's kids!"

That makes sense. Perhaps we should also ask the state's 9-year-olds to do something about our fast-vanishing architectural history. We could ask the tykes to celebrate our 100th birthday next year by saving the Quebedeaux Chevrolet building on Grand Avenue, most recently home to the Paper Heart gallery and performance space, designed by Victor Gruen and renowned architect Ralph Haver in 1955. Or the kids could look into rescuing the stunning and dilapidated White Gates House, built in 1964 by Al Beadle in the foothills of Camelback Mountain.

Maybe there's a kindergarten class that would like to adopt the remains of the Leighton G. Knipe House, a formerly gorgeous residence designed and once occupied by one of our most prominent local architects. Gutted by arson last year, the house appears doomed; its estimated fire damage alone will cost as much as $150,000 to repair. But our local kids could sell personalized matchbooks for a buck a throw, and then threaten to throw themselves on a pyre if the city doesn't restore this once-beautiful, fire-ravaged home. Or maybe they could sell candy wax lips and use the proceeds to create some kind of memorial to the Kon Tiki Hotel, the Fox Theater, and the Clark Churchill House, all long gone and soon to be forgotten. Their slogan could be "Don't pay lip service to historic preservation. Do something about it!" Just a thought.

It's up to the kids, really, to save our old buildings. If we've learned anything at all these past hundred or so years, it's that the work done by grownups in charge of that particular project isn't worth a cent.

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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