Alison King didn’t set out to be the midcentury maven of Maricopa County. “I’d planned to be a high school art teacher,” she said during a break from planning next month’s Modern Phoenix Week. “I ended up teaching college instead, and then spending a big chunk of my life talking to people about modern architecture.”
Instructing others about midcentury marvels began innocently, King said. “My husband and I were deciding where we wanted to live, and we were documenting our drives through Phoenix with really shitty cameras, photographing stuff we liked. Then I would make these little web pages about what we’d seen, so we could talk about whether we wanted to live there. It was a way to catalog what we looked at.”
King put her web pages on the iternet, and Google found them. “Someone would type in ‘Ralph Haver’ or ‘Windemere’ or whatever, and they would wind up at my site because it was the only site about those topics out there.”
People began writing to King about modernist influences and about Haver, the renowned architect whose distinctive modern tract homes have lately become so sought after. She quickly became a Haver scholar; in the meantime, a community was born.
“Within six months, we had our first home tour and began meeting other like-minded people,” she said. We were instructing each other, connecting all the dots about Haver homes, and midcentury architecture, and the history of its influence, and the houses we were living in.”
That was in 2004. All that dot-connecting led King and company to a 10-day-long Modern Phoenix Week, which commences on March 15. Its tours, talks, and public events are aimed at design professionals and midcentury enthusiasts.
King grew up in Scottsdale, and attended Saguaro High School, where she met her husband, Matthew. (King’s parents also met in high school — at Coronado High, a campus designed by Ralph Haver. “The Haver family likes to joke with me that if Coronado hadn’t existed, my parents would not have met and I wouldn’t have been born,” she said with a laugh.)
There were Haver buildings in the neighborhood where King grew up, but she didn’t notice.
“I was a teenager and didn’t care about such things,” she recalled. But while getting what she called “a master's degree in arts education from a fancy New York college,” King learned to love modern design history. She settled in Manhattan, and made annual visits to Phoenix. “I began to understand how my city’s design fit into a global context,” she said, “and how and why my hometown environment was important.”
A happy summer spent working at Arcosanti convinced King and her new husband to return to Phoenix, where she’s helped us to see our town in a new light. “A lot of it has to do with putting Phoenix in a larger context. And a lot of it has to do with vocabulary and the words we use to describe the built environment.”
She spent a good chunk of last year gathering material for a rewrite of Haver’s career.
“When I first documented his work here,” she said, “the resources I had were limited. Now I have so much —digitally, online, from oral histories. I’ve scraped through decades of newspaper archives to extract every mention of Ralph Haver’s name from 1946 to 1986. I filled two binders.”
She’s set the project aside to focus on Modern Phoenix Week. “The first year we did it, we had 100 people,” said King, who’s doing a presentation on Haver houses as part of the Modern Phoenix package. “Now we sell 1,000 tickets in a matter of hours.”
With growth comes growing pains, King said. The day before, an entire neighborhood scheduled for an historic tour had pulled out. “They were having HOA issues,” she said. “So we’re on to the next thing.”
The home tours are especially popular. “We get a lot of empty nesters, baby boomers who are downsizing. A lot of women who want to have a day out with their girlfriends, and then there are people who want to take a walk through a house that reminds them of their grandma’s.”
King said she’s seen an increasing number of millennials attend Modern Phoenix Week, as well. More of them are buying houses built in the '50s and '60s. She thought they might be looking for something with, as she put it, “a little patina.”
“I think that generation is looking for something a little more authentic, a little more lived-in,” she said from the sofa of her central Phoenix Haver home. “It’s hard to explain, but I think younger people are drawn to the fantasy of a mid-century home. These houses represent a real optimistic time period, and these are people who are coming of age at a time that’s not so optimistic.”
King was already thinking about her next, post-Modern Phoenix Week endeavor: a mapping project documenting Phoenix’s commercial buildings. “I’m big on maps,” she said. “And I’ve really got to get back to rewriting my Haver history. There’s never enough time to document the past.”