One afternoon last week, a group of local preservationists met on the little bridge outside the entrance to the Phoenix Zoo. They were not there to see gorillas or watch a giraffe eat from tall branches. This bunch wanted to look at the old Phoenix Bakery building, which had recently and mysteriously turned up here at the zoo.
The preservationists looked startled, and maybe a little unnerved. How, they asked one another, could this have gotten past us? When, one of them whispered to another, did all this happen?
These people were always among the first to know when an old building was about to be bulldozed. They fought to keep wrecking balls at bay with petitions and websites and Facebook pages. Some of them bought up old houses and restored them; others found buyers for endangered buildings and helped them relocate the buildings to safer places.
This group knew where all the ancient architecture was, who owned it, and whether it might be torn down. So how had this bakery, which some of them thought might be the oldest building in town, been moved and restored without their knowledge?
“You probably didn’t know about this because it wasn’t a public project,” a man named Matt Strangwayes explained to the crowd of nine. Strangwayes said he was the interpretive content manager at the zoo, which meant he created and managed the educational signage there. On this project, he’d made signs and other interpretive elements that explained the history of the Phoenix Bakery.
Before it merged with Holsum Bakery in 1929, the bakery had been Phoenix’s longest-running privately owned corporation, its history stretching back to 1881. Purchased by a German immigrant named Edward Eisele three years later, Phoenix Bakery became a family enterprise; three generations of the family had since worked there. This location was shuttered in the mid-1970s and relocated to South 23rd Avenue, long before Holsum sold its brand to the Flower Foods conglomerate.
As the preservationist group trudged past chimps and macaws, Strangwayes explained that the building had been donated by Ed Eisele Jr., the grandson of the founder and a former president of the bakery. It will be used as a private rental facility and not open to the public. “We’ll host weddings, graduation parties, what have you,” he said.
“We know that this building got moved to Pioneer Village in the 1970s,” a preservationist named Rob Melikian announced, “because it was about to be torn down and Ed Eisele wanted to save it. But how did it end up at the zoo?”
Strangwayes said he didn’t want to say anything bad about the people at Pioneer Village, but he thought maybe their plans for the bakery building never came together.
“So it just kind of sat there all those years. But we have a Mexican wolf breeding program here, and the Eiseles helped fund that. Ed Eisele is a wolf guy. So we already had a relationship with the Eiseles, and they just asked us if they could bring the bakery here.”
When the building was moved the first time, Strangwayes said Eisele had told him, it traveled two miles an hour on a giant flatbed truck. This time, Strangwayes explained, it was taken apart and then reassembled, brick by brick, on the zoo grounds.
“We had two or three photos from the era,” Strangwayes explained, “and we built it based on that. Ed kept saying, ‘Make it like the picture! Make it like the picture!’”
The group arrived at the reassembled bakery. The building is now wider than the original, an historian named Duran Lugo noted. Strangwayes agreed.
“But those cement pillars are original,” he said, pointing to the front of the building. “They would have been shipped to Phoenix probably from Illinois or somewhere. Kansas City maybe. There was no one out here producing that kind of thing.”
The group admired how everything inside the bakery was period correct. The shelves were lined with loaves of shellacked bread, and the display cases were filled with rubber cakes and stacks of pretend cookies. All of it looked real.
“Some of these things came right from Ed Eisele’s private collection,” Strangwayes explained, pointing out Ed Sr.’s desk and recipe book. “He kept that recipe book in his back pocket at all times.”
The bakery was filled with life-sized, photographic cutouts of people taken from 100-year-old photos. One of the preservationists pointed to a cutout of a woman in a giant picture hat, holding a baby. “I think this is Julia Thomas,” he said. “The lost Dutchman died in her house. He gave her instructions to the location of the mine.”
Another preservationist looked annoyed. “Julia Thomas owned her own bakery,” he said. “I don’t know why she’d be in here.”
Strangwayes said that the baby in the photo had come to a grand opening party the zoo had held at the bakery. She was in her 90s now and had stood next to the photograph of her mother, holding her as a baby.
“Why didn’t you tell us you’d had a grand opening celebration?” a woman named Kim Casper asked.
“They didn’t want us to mob them,” another preservationist named Steve Schumacher said.
Strangwayes talked about Phoenix’s underground market, where in the old days some men went to buy opium and women and a game of cards. Ed Eisele Jr., hadn’t wanted to talk to Strangwayes about that, but his research told him that the underground moved to Chinatown after the turn of the 20th century. Illicit underground businesses were marked with lighted cobblestones. “There might still be one left near the Westward Ho,” Strangwayes said.
A few days later, Schumacher talked more about moving the bakery. “I don’t think Ed Eisele deliberately kept historians out of the loop,” Schumacher said. “I think he figured he had the money and the connections to rescue his grandfather’s building, and he just made it happen.”
What mattered, Steve said, was that the oldest building in town had been restored, instead of being torn down.
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