Editor's Note: Each week Robrt Pela writes about the people and places that define Phoenix.
“The homeless used to sleep here,” whispered a woman clutching a clipboard. She pointed behind her to a doorway, one of many doorways on this Saturday morning tour of Phoenix’s formerly abandoned National Guard Armory Building. “In there,” she said, then raised her eyebrows.
It was hard to hear her story over the gentle tones of Armory owner Jay Visconti, who was conducting a tour of this now stately, recently derelict structure on West Roosevelt Street.
The homeless had been sleeping in a building on the fairgrounds, the woman quietly explained. But that building was hung with stuffed heads — elk and moose and a bobcat — and the dispossessed men found it hard to rest with all those glass eyes staring down at them. “We moved them here, and they liked it so much better,” she confided. “No dead animals looking at them, you see.”
This was in the winter, when the homeless need a place to keep warm. “We did that for three years, maybe more,” the woman with the clipboard said. “And now this is not an abandoned building any more, so the men will have to sleep someplace else.”
The Armory, built in the 1950s, is now home to artist studios and creative office space, Visconti told the crowd of 40-odd preservationists and art-lovers as they filed into the studio of painter Jason Hugger. “We have 50 percent occupancy. There’s a dance company moving in upstairs in a few weeks. Rent starts at about $325 a month.”
“He got it for almost nothing,” a financial advisor named Richard said, soto voce, to the man beside him. “He probably paid all the back taxes and the city was happy. Smart guy.”
Six years ago, the building stopped being an armory, Visconti said. The Armory was owned by the state, and no one wanted to buy it because it was zoned for residential, and people weren’t interested in living down here.
The crowd laughed. “We don’t need another moldy apartment complex,” a ponytailed man wearing a baseball cap hollered, his words echoing off cool brick and concrete floors.
Visconti, a real estate developer from Torrance, California, convinced the city to change the building’s zoning, he said. He bought the structure two years ago, then sandblasted old paint off the Armory’s handsome red brick walls. He tore off five layers of glued-down vinyl tile and a couple layers of carpeting, then had the cement floors ground smooth. He added skylights and better doors and new bathrooms with armory-themed, shiny metal detailing. He yanked out the 220-ton chiller system and replaced it with an air conditioner that turns on only when the building gets warm.
“You wouldn’t believe how much vandalization there was here,” he said. The crowd groaned in unison as Visconti led them into a large, empty space with a wall of large windows.
“Crowd in, it’s okay,” he said. “Don’t worry, there are no ghosts left in here.”
Outside, a man in a football jersey laughed and waved at passing cars. “I’m Jimmy James!” he yelled at traffic on Roosevelt Street. “I had it, then I had it again!” He doubled over, holding his stomach and laughing.
In the brightly lit, cement-floored room, old-building lovers oohed and ahhed at the Armory’s crisp resurrection.
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“See, what’s happening now is this,” a young woman said to a teenaged girl beside her. “These guys are coming in from California or Nevada or wherever, and they’re looking around and going, ‘Phoenix could be a cool place. Let’s buy these old buildings and do something good for the community with them.'”
The teenager stared at the floor. “Listen to me,” the woman said. “This never, ever used to happen. Ever!”
In one of the Armory’s cool, mortared rooms, a longtime local artist cornered Visconti. While they talked, the tour group wandered away. “My house is falling down,” the artist told Visconti. “The studio where I make art is closing. I am thinking about renting a place here. I brought pictures of my artwork to show you.”
While Visconti looked at images on the artist’s cellphone, the artist repeated his story. His house was falling down. His studio was closing. He wasn’t so worried about finding a place to live, he claimed. But he hoped he could make his art here, at the Armory.
Outside, Jimmy James danced in a circle. He pointed to the sky, and at the people exiting that rarest of things: a neatly refurbished, once-abandoned building. Jimmy James held his stomach, and he laughed and laughed.