Phoenix Past and Present is a Gorgeous Look at the City's Best Architecture

A present-day look at Hanny's in downtown Phoenix.
A present-day look at Hanny's in downtown Phoenix. Paul Scharbach
Paul Scharbach has just published a new book filled with gorgeous photographs of Phoenix’s best architecture. But on a recent Saturday afternoon, he’s still thinking about the ones that got away.

“There were a few buildings I literally couldn’t photograph,” he says of the images in Phoenix Past and Present. “There were either new buildings blocking the view, or in one case the trees in front of the building had grown so high, you couldn’t see it. And there’s a beautiful old city administration building on Van Buren Street we wanted to include, but I couldn’t find any historic images of it.”

But the more than 170 photos that did make it into the book, co-authored by historian Robert Melikian, are stunners. Each archival photograph of a downtown street corner or a lovely old building, taken from the 1880s to the early 1960s, is paired with a lovingly reproduced image by Scharbach, a longtime commercial photographer. The pair worked with local historian John Jacquemart in collecting and researching the images, each of which is given its own page.

“We wanted to make them as large as possible so you could really take time studying them,” says Scharbach, who’d never met Melikian or Jacquemart but knew their work as local historians and documentarians.

Scharbach is the author of Phoenix Then and Now, a popular pictorial history of the city published in 2005; Melikian, whose family has owned and operated the Hotel San Carlos since 1973, has written a book about the history of the hotel as well as Vanishing Phoenix, which documents long-gone historic buildings.

The trio, who shared an interest in history and preservation and what Scharbach calls “cool old buildings,” agreed to work on a book project that took a pleasant and unexpected turn when they met Tina Cervantes, who saw Melikian discussing the project on a talk show.

“She called me and said, ‘I used to work in a photo lab in the 1960s,'” Melikian recalls, “and she had these scrapbooks of pictures she’d developed and printed and in some cases hand-colored herself. All of old buildings in Phoenix. No one had ever seen any of these images before. It was a discovery that just changed the whole project for us.”

click to enlarge A look at the skyline of Phoenix past. - COURTESY OF THE ARIZONA STATE ARCHIVES
A look at the skyline of Phoenix past.
Courtesy of the Arizona State Archives
Cervantes’s 1920s images of the Hotel San Carlos, the A.E. England Motors Inc. Building (now an art gallery and coffee shop), and the Pay ’n’ Takit Store (today home to a boxing club) offer gorgeous glimpses of long-ago local life. Her treasure trove of photos fit neatly with Scharbach’s goal to use as many never-before-seen images as he and his colleagues could find. “That took a lot of extra time and research,” admits Scharbach, who used digital camera technology to recreate old images, some made with antiquated bellows box cameras. Many of the vintage photos came from ASU, which holds the McCullough Brothers archive of commercial photography. The authors kept expanding the page count of the book as they found more and more images of old architecture.

Scharbach’s new photographs are meticulous in their angles and positions, and most duplicate exactly the original vintage shot printed in the book. Elevation was key, says Scharbach, who wasn’t always able to get the proper angle because there were now other buildings standing in his way.

There were other challenges. It wasn’t enough to determine the angle of the sun in the original shot, Scharbach recalls. He also had to take into consideration the time of year and the time of day the old picture had been made. “The sun is in different positions throughout the year,” he explains. “If you’ve got a south-facing building, you may have the proper light on that building only in November or December. I had to map out every street scene based on whether it was taken in winter or summer, afternoon or morning.” West- and east-facing buildings were less of a headache, he says.

Some of the pairings appear to have nothing to do with one another, like those depicting the then-and-now of the Mountain States Telephone and Telegraph Building at Third Avenue and Adams Street. Scharbach’s contemporary portrait of the building, which is today obliterated by a modern façade, quite literally belongs to another era. Others, like a pair of old and new shots of the Adams/Grace Court School, are virtually identical.

All of these photographs, says Melikian, make a larger point about the evolution of an American city.

“You’re not just looking at how street corners or city blocks or buildings have changed over time,” Melikian says. “You’re seeing the passage of time itself.”

Jacquemart, Scharbach, and Melikian will discuss and sign copies of Phoenix Past and Present on Saturday, May 13, at 7 p.m. at Changing Hands Books, 300 West Camelback Road. Call 602-274-0067 or visit Changing Hands' website.
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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