Architecture and Design

Melrose District Arch Installation Gives Phoenix's Seventh Avenue a Facelift and an Identity

It happened, as these things have a tendency to, in the dead of night.

Exactly a week before the 7 p.m. commemoration on Wednesday, November 20, construction crews took to Seventh Avenue and Indian School Road, just yards north of the intersection, and secured a steel structure meant to give the Melrose District not only a facelift but also a tangible identity.

The Melrose Arch, as it is being called, came as a quiet surprise to morning commuters Thursday, but for residents and business owners, it was a long time coming.

See also: 5 Favorite Vintage Shops on 7th Avenue in Phoenix

Wednesday night saw a decade-old dream realized at a monumentalization officiated by outgoing District 4 Phoenix City Councilman Tom Simplot. The 20-minute prelude included speakers Wylie Bearup, the city's Street Transportation Department director; Jay Silverberg, a principal at Gensler, the architecture firm in charge of the arch's design; and Teresa Stickler, president of the Seventh Avenue Merchants Association.

The arch itself cost $498,000 and comprises three pieces: two 24-foot-tall, 9,800-pound columns that support an 80-foot-wide, 43,000-pound steel truss to create a perfectly angular, square arch. On the right-hand corner of each side -- facing north and south -- the word "Melrose" is spelled out in uppercase letters. The now-lit designation joins the glow of traffic signals at Indian School Road and a nearby 7-Eleven.

It might be trite to call the lighting of the arch a community event, but it was. Spectators wore Melrose Pharmacy and Wag 'N Wash T-shirts. Older couples held hands, standing side by side with their younger, gay counterparts. There was a family of five. Three dogs. Men in suits and ties. Men in shorts. A girl playing with a yo-yo.

They all chatted, waiting patiently in a semi-circle of 200 people for Councilman Simplot to speak. They all called him "Tom."

When he took to the microphone, Simplot was engaging and metaphorical, but not overstated.

"[The arch] represents what we as a community have achieved," he said.

Melrose is a community that takes pride in its diversity and welcomes everyone, he said -- and the sign symbolizes that.

A chorus of "Let there be light!" from both sides of the avenue drowned out the passing traffic, and the name glowed in bright white, offset by that little pink squiggle -- a symbol meant to mimic the street design of the Melrose Curve. A street design that adds to the uniqueness of the district but simultaneously has proved problematic for business.

Phoenix has an identity crisis. This is nothing new and rarely generates a worthwhile argument. It's the sixth-largest city in the country and covers less than 520 square miles; a commuter city of a million and a half people, lacking unity, with seemingly little common ground.

The Valley is dynamic, not vibrant. But it's home -- and for those 1.5 million individuals, "home" begets neighborhoods, and those neighborhoods foster an otherwise lost sense of community.

"I consider this sort of a pilot project," Simplot said later, after his speech. "We should be doing this throughout this city: identifying those pocket neighborhoods that have character. That's what makes people feel like they're home."

There are the prominent ones, of course. But for every Roosevelt Row and Grand Avenue, there's an Evans Churchill and F.Q. Story -- the struggling little sisters: less marketable and well-branded than their shadows but equally as charming and worthy of notice.

Willo, Coronado and Encanto-Palmcroft are neighborhoods in the traditional sense of the word: promoting their names through guided tours and rich history.

The Melrose District is different. Not "bad" different, but different -- which doubles as an ideal branding opportunity.

Central Seventh Avenue is car-centric, noted for the "suicide lanes" and commuters traveling 50 miles per hour in the mornings and evenings, making often-unannounced left-hand turns. But it's also the gayborhood, which sounds derogatory but is always said with great affection, and continues to be one of the Valley's prominent vintage hubs.

A friendly community on an unfriendly avenue, struggling to forge an identity against its difficult physical design.

The installation of the Melrose Arch took eight men, two cranes and two 10-hour nights, said Brandon Bell, owner of Bell Steel, the company responsible for the construction.

When asked how long the process took from start to finish, numbers ranging from 2,000 to 2,300 man hours floated around -- considering construction of each intricate metal plate (measuring approximately 6 feet by 6 feet and a half-inch thick) took literally 24 hours a day over the course of multiple weeks.

For Councilman Simplot, who will end his decade-long run as District 4's representative in January, the project has been at least 10 years in the making.

"Everything's been incremental, truly, but this is kind of the capstone. You can't miss it," he said.

The Seventh Avenue Merchants Association hopes to add two more arches, one near Camelback Road and one near Campbell Avenue.

"My experience has been that people have heard of the Melrose District, they're just not quite sure where it's at," Simplot said. "We needed an identity. We needed something to say 'You've arrived,' and that's what's so special about this sign."

Throughout his three-minute remarks, Jay Silverberg of Gensler peppered his sentences with words like "iconic" and "timeless," describing a "gateway that transcends the character of Seventh Avenue."

It was flowery language, but not off-base. The arch is distinctive without being out of place or grotesque. It's not campy or even particularly bright -- the only color comes from the lettering and pink curve, a color chosen purposefully as a shout-out to the gay and lesbian neighborhood.

The look, according to Silverberg, was meant to mimic the midcentury modern influence apparent throughout the district's many local businesses.

Modern Manor is one such store. Arguably one of the anchors of the Melrose District, and certainly a destination for Eames-loving buyers with time and money, the space specializes in Midcentury Modern furniture and design.

While store manager Dominic Fasano said the conception of the arch wouldn't have been his first choice, overall he welcomed the piece.

"I like that it doesn't scream vintage [or] reused at all, which is what the district is known for, because some people's interpretation of vintage/retro/funky can look like a hot mess," he said. "This is a great step of growth and also a path for greater exposure. When giving directions to our store, we currently speak of the canal as a landmark!"

That seems to be the consensus among the district's business owners.

Jon Douglas and David Clark own Figs Home & Garden near Seventh Avenue and Campbell, right next to the aforementioned canal. They have been members of the Seventh Avenue Merchants Association for eight years and regularly frequented the avenue before opening their business here.

Clark calls his district one of a kind in Phoenix, adding, "The arch is the crown of that statement."

The business partners see Melrose as a live, work, shop society, helping to bridge the seemingly vast gap of the fanfare and accessibility of Central Avenue with the businesses Seventh Avenue has to offer -- after all, it's only a quarter-mile, Douglas said.

"This is a positive redevelopment," he added, eyeing the arch.

Though the idea has been on the agenda for years, it gained traction only this summer with full support of the city. Its implementation received a unanimous vote from the Phoenix City Council, due in large part to Simplot.

"Tom saw this vision like we saw this vision," Douglas said.

The electric excitement of the crowd started to fade around 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday night. The small bouquets of balloons at the arch's base were deflating, and the residents of District 4 converged in small clusters along the main thoroughfare.

Further down the sidewalk, in the shadow of his business, Victor Deleon stood, smoking and watching the fanfare a few feet away.

Deleon has owned the Mobil 1 Lube Express on the northwestern corner of Indian School and Seventh Avenue for more than a decade, itself a succession in a generation of auto-repair stores to call that corner home.

He said he thought the sign was cool as he watched the crowd dissipate, but he lamented that the entire structure doesn't light up so passersby can see the detailed metalwork along with the "Melrose" brand.

He talked briefly about the changes to these four corners throughout the last 10 years and looked across the street to his southernmost neighbor. What was once a struggling strip mall is now a dirt lot where the framework for a yet indistinguishable building has been erected.

"I don't know," he said. "I'll probably get more business from that new McDonald's."

See also: Five Best Places for Industrial Salvage Shopping in Metro Phoenix Hard Goods to Reopen Inside Modern Manor In Phoenix's Melrose District

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Janessa is a native Phoenician. She joined New Times as a contributor in 2013. You can connect with her on social media at @janessahilliard, and she promises you'll find no pictures of cats on her Instagram — but plenty of cocktails.
Contact: Janessa Hilliard