Razing Arizona: Where Architecture Sometimes Takes a Backseat

Arizona is exactly twice my age. Both born in February, we've had a complicated relationship for most of my 50 years. The state has offered me mild desert winters and comparatively low property taxes but won't allow me to legally wed my spouse of 15 years. We've always fought. Arizona feeds me summers that tempt me to stay in bed half the year; I return the favor by complaining — often, and publicly — about our capital city's tendency to plow down its architectural history.

Like the great slope-roofed Wright House on Seventh Street at McKinley, with its porch made from bricks poured from molds designed by the northeastern Ohio fire-brick company where my grandfather worked in the 1930s. Designed and built the very year that Arizona achieved statehood, this house was among the earliest examples of Craftsman bungalow construction in Phoenix, and it was torn down in 2007 because its new owner wanted to build a more modern structure there.

The year I left the suburbs and moved downtown was the same year that the wonderful old Stroud Building was bulldozed. At first, it appeared that some wise preservationist was going to restore this two-story, brick territorial on North Central Avenue; every day, as I drove by (on my way to work in another marvelous old building, 1947's Stewart Motor Company building, then home to Circles Records and Tapes), I could see that the ugly 1950s plaster cladding that obscured the Stroud's gorgeous brick façade was being stripped away to reveal the original exterior, still entirely intact beneath. Some of the dental molding was crumbling, but that great arched doorway was still there. Someone, I fantasized, was about to do something marvelous with the former home of The American Kitchen, built in 1900 and long a mainstay in downtown Phoenix.

Instead, a developer razed it a few weeks later.

I arrived in Arizona in April 1963 by way of the gorgeous Union Station, an amazing example of Mission Revival architecture built in 1923 and still standing on Fourth Avenue. Trains no longer stop there, but the building's curved arches and tiled ceilings aren't going anywhere, thanks to its place on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Fox West Coast Theatre wasn't so lucky. Inarguably the most beautiful of the downtown movie houses, it was an Art Moderne marvel designed by S. Charles Lee that once stood at First Street and Washington. Built in 1931, it dwarfed an entire city block with gaudiness: outside, a ticket booth shaped like a jeweled crown and lighted by a colossal overhead sunburst of light bulbs; inside, a grand staircase straight out of a Busby Berkeley number, hand-painted ceilings, and truck-size crystal chandeliers hanging over 1,800 velveteen seats. All of which was demolished when the building was torn down in 1975.

At least the vacant lot where the Fox once had stood was quickly developed. After the once-glorious Luhrs Hotel (built in 1897) was razed in the middle 1970s, its lot stood empty for three long decades. It's a perfect example of the story we've been telling the past hundred years — one about greedy, often misguided developers, and a lack of real interest in what Arizona once was.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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