Majestic Ruins: Phoenix's First Baptist Church and More

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A couple of years ago, I telephoned one of my editors to ask where Ikea was located.

"You just wrote a feature about it," she said. "Don't go all Stephen Glass on me. You have been there, haven't you?"

I had. But even when I've visited a place before, I can never remember where anything is in this town — anything that isn't an abandoned building, that is.


Surreal Estate

Lately, my favorite is the First Baptist Church (302 W. Monroe St.), with its stunning stone columns, Italian Gothic details, and arched doorways. Built in 1929, the church's design usually is credited to local architecture firm Fitzhugh and Byron. But those guys only supervised the construction of the church, which was designed by architect George Merrill from the New York-based Department of Architecture of the American Baptist Home Mission Society. The church has oddly Moderne touches — clean lines, a large porthole window, and less filigree than one would expect to find in a Gothic church.

The place is a majestic ruin. Its interior was gutted in a fire in the early '90s, and the church has no roof. This beautiful building was saved from demolition by some quick thinking on the part of former Mayor Terry Goddard, who had what was left of the structure placed on the National Register of Historic Places. But 20 years later, it remains empty and unused.

So does the Hayden Flour Mill (100 N. Mill Ave. in Tempe) — although apparently not for long. A couple of years ago, I reported that a commercial developer had submitted plans to the city of Tempe proposing a mixed-use development that would include a hotel, retail, and condos on the site of the historic mill. A few years before that, there were plans afoot to turn the mill's silos into upscale lofts. Both plans were okayed, and both fell apart, in part because of an ongoing excavation of the mill site, where archeologists are uncovering Indian artifacts and the canal that powered the mill 100 years ago.

But now the city has turned the boarded-up eyesore over to something called Downtown Tempe Community Inc., which says it will manage the property as a public gathering space and ad hoc Tempe history museum. The proposed not-for-profit space will operate as a public park, where outdoor concerts and weddings can take place.

I liked the other ideas better.

Sometimes, my ennui about an abandoned building is less about the structure and more about its landmark status — like Beef Eaters Restaurant (300 W. Camelback Road). Beef Eaters has been shuttered for a decade now, but rumors are once again swirling that this kitschy steak joint is about to reopen.

Jay Newton's popular steak and seafood restaurant opened in 1961 and was a downtown mainstay for 40 years. So sentimental are locals about this swanky supper club that the place even has its own (largely inactive) Facebook page (www.facebook.com/SaveBeefEaters) devoted to tracking its sale and possible resurrection. The exterior isn't much to look at, thanks to a solid but unattractive renovation in the late '70s, but the inside? Wow. Leather banquettes and oak-paneled walls and all that King Arthur paraphernalia, right down to a giant suit of armor over in the corner.

According to local legend, all this gorgeous junk is still in there — but may be about to be relocated, if Changing Hands Bookstore takes over the space. The Tempe bookstore has been shopping for a Phoenix location, and for a while it was rumored that the company would move into the old Circles Records and Tapes building (800 N. Central Aven.) — another old beauty that's lying in wait for someone to notice it and bring it back to life.

Of course, once someone does rehab Circles — or any of the other abandoned buildings around town — I'll probably just drive right on by.

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