Multiple Architectural Styles Aren't the Only Mysteries at Chelsey Park

It's a wonder I haven't driven off the road and straight into a lamppost by now. I've spent my entire adult life craning my neck at passing buildings as I drive by — buildings I've seen a hundred times; buildings I know I'm about to pass and that won't have changed since the last time I took my eyes off the road for dangerous amounts of time in order to ogle them.

Like the new domed Islamic Temple going up on the west side. Or those weird, round bank buildings on Central Avenue, just up the street from the horror of Macayo's on Central, with its fluorescent stuccoed step-down façade that looks, to me, anyway, like a giant Egyptian planter.

I know, because I write about buildings for a living, that every one of these structures has a story to tell. Most of them are short stories. And a lot of them are unremarkable.

That's why I sometimes stop short of uncovering the history of every building I have taken a fancy to. I've found, in researching old houses and tumbledown strip malls and boxy, glass-and-chrome office buildings that finding out too much about them makes them a heck of a lot less interesting. Although I keep a list of buildings old and new that I want to write about one day, I know that some of the places on the list are interesting only because they're so mysterious.

Like Chelsey Park Apartments, at 4526 North Black Canyon Highway. I've attempted over the years to find someone who can explain Chelsey Park to me. Every six months or so, I try to track down an owner or property manager who can describe to me this odd tangle of sun-bleached apartment buildings, all part of the same complex, each of them an example of a different type of architecture. One of them is a Spanish territorial; another is a Craftsman bungalow. There's a Transitional Ranch house right next to a faux adobe. And at the northernmost end of the lineup is my favorite: a mock Tudor castle, complete with brick turrets and a neatly rounded doorway.

I have to admit that I didn't notice Chelsey Park until about 10 years ago, a fact that infuriated Dwight, a former colleague of mine. He was right to be angry, I guess. Like Dwight, I'd grown up on the northwest side of town in the '60s, back when the only in-town freeway was I-17, onto which Chelsey Park very visibly fronts. Dwight pointed out that there was no way in hell I hadn't driven past Chelsey Park a thousand times over the years; how could I not know what he was talking about?

He was right. And lately, I've been looking for someone who can explain to me this peculiar mishmash of architectural styles, describe its appeal and its history, and enlighten me with regard to its unusual name, which suggests a lushness that doesn't exist anywhere on this long stretch of dreary frontage road. I hoped, when I first starting pursuing Chelsey Park, that the story would involve an alcoholic architect who couldn't decide on a single type of building design, or an eccentric developer with a fondness for the miniature golf courses of his youth. I know, from county tax records, that all of Chelsey Park was built at once, sometime in the '60s, rather than one building at a time. And I know, from personal experience, that it's owned by a man named Bill Englund, who does not return phone messages.

Neither does its leasing agent. In fact, the last time I called, just a few days ago, the phone rang and rang and then an automated, robotic voice announced, "Answerer off." I'm not even sure that "answerer" is a word, but there's one thing I'm certain of: Chelsey Park doesn't want to be bothered.

So I headed over there. I meant to pose as a potential tenant who wanted more than anything to live in a slump block building shaped like a castle and sitting right on a busy freeway. But the rental office was closed.

I wandered through Chelsey Park's parched, paved walkways. Untroubled by landscaping, all of Chelsey Park's buildings are painted the same dusty taupe color and roofed with gray asphalt shingles — a sad contrast to the brightly hued Berkana Townhomes, a newish, half-empty complex of faux Italian condos directly across the freeway. There's no courtyard beyond the row of oddball buildings, only a tiny, spotted swimming pool wedged behind the Craftsman. The only revelation I came away with is that the castle is no longer part of the original Chelsey Park complex, having been sold some time ago. Today, it's called Yorkshire Apartments, and one can, according to the nice landlady I spoke with there, rent a two-bedroom apartment for just $500. After a quick tour of this apartment, I was eager to leave.

On my way out, I spotted a couple of guys leaning against the bank of metal mailboxes out front. I asked if they knew where the rental agent was, and the shorter of the two, a clean-shaven man who was wearing a T-shirt printed with the slogan "Mustache Rides 50 Cents," snorted. "They're never around," he said, and his friend asked, "You moving in here?"

I told him I was thinking about it and asked did they know whether tenants got to choose which style building they wanted to live in?

"Huh?" Mustache Rides grunted.

"Well," I said, "I only want to live here if I can get a unit in either the Craftsman or the adobe hut. Maybe the bungalow, if they've got a two-bedroom."

Both men just stared at me, so I explained that what really drew me to Chelsey Park was the fact that, you know, every building is entirely different from the others.

Mustache Rides walked out into the street and stood looking at the lineup of Chelsey Park buildings. When he rejoined us, he was shaking his head. "Huh," he said. "I never noticed that before. They are all different."

Apparently, Chelsey Park remains a mystery even to those who live there.

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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