Will Folding in the Historic Preservation Commission with the Downtown Development Office Spell Architectural Doom for Phoenix?

It was known for the past half-century as "the Marilyn Monroe hotel," because Monroe, in town to shoot scenes for the 1956 film Bus Stop, stayed in its penthouse for a few weeks. Today, the Sahara Motor Hotel at First and Polk Streets is a pile of rubble on its way to a landfill, because late last month, ASU — which has been gobbling up great chunks of downtown for a while now — ordered its destruction to make way for the new law school it plans to build in 2012.

Meantime, the site will be a parking lot for the two-year-old Sheraton Phoenix Hotel.

It's an old story, one that I've told repeatedly in this column, about how in our town, progress means obliterating what's left of our architectural history. This time, though, I'm not just whining about how we lost another building that's significant because of its pedigree or because a movie star once took a crap there. I'm repeating this oft-told story as a cautionary tale, because it's a story that one can expect to hear more often and with increasing frequency, if city planners have anything to say about it. That's because there are plans afoot to fold our Historic Preservation Commission into the Downtown Development Office — a wolf-in-the-henhouse marriage that, in any city other than Phoenix, would be unfathomable.

Designed in 1955 by Matthew E. Trudelle and built by renowned local developer Delbert Webb, the Sahara Motor Hotel was once a beautifully boxy example of Mid-Century design, with 175 stacked guestrooms wrapped around a center courtyard garden and pool. The hotel featured two large terrace suites and a pair of penthouses, and was bordered at street level by a full city block of retail space. Some time ago, a misguided renovation covered the entire façade with pink stucco, Spanish tile, and an ass-ugly paint job. Abandoned and dilapidated, the hotel was recently headed for the auction block, where it might have been snapped up for a song and restored by a private investor interested in maintaining its architectural significance while also turning a profit as a destination hotel and retail spot. Or ASU, in its endless quest to turn downtown into a college campus, might have restored and repurposed the building as a dorm with shops and restaurants out front.

Instead, the city of Phoenix and ASU bought the property for $6.25 million in February, and set about knocking it down. At a time when new construction is financially unsound, the university that claims to have built its name on adaptive reuse — whose flacks chant like a mantra the catch-phrases "world-changing innovators" and "model of sustainability" to describe the college — is funding a much more expensive rebuild, and eliminating the opportunity for a private developer to rehab an entire city block.

It's an irony that's not lost on Rachel Luptak, a local interior designer who studied architecture at ASU and who prepared an analysis last year of the Sahara for one of her clients. "ASU has opted to build a $40 million law school rather than a $10 million rehab," gripes Luptak, "and they've already spent millions just knocking it down. What's world-changing about that?"

Luptak worries that the attention paid to the property by a new subcommittee of the Downtown Voices Coalition, devoted to rescuing the Sahara from the wrecking ball, actually had the opposite effect.

"I don't know that our attempts to save the building sped up its destruction," Steve Weiss, the subcommittee chair, told me. "But I can tell you that our meeting with the mayor was rescheduled three times." When Phil Gordon did meet with Weiss' save-the-hotel group, it was too late. "We were told, 'That train has left the station,'" Weiss says.

Three days later, the teardown commenced.

We'd better get used to it. Budget cuts and consolidations have led to the recent merging of the City's Development Services with its Planning Department, and now City Council wants to fold Historic Preservation into that mix. Marrying a committee designed to protect old buildings with organizations with a history of obliterating our architectural past seems like a crummy idea.

"I think you're wrong," Mark Leonard, the director of Development Services, told me. "It's my job to see that Historic Preservation's goals continue to be supported and that the interaction among the groups is enhanced, and not hindered, by our working together."

I want to believe Leonard. And I hope, as he and his staff climb into bed with Historic Preservation, that they keep in mind the looming presence of ASU, which has already knocked over the geodesic dome bank at the corner of Rural and Apache in Tempe. And is tearing down its own once-glorious and architecturally significant Alpha Drive. And which runs the Del E. Webb School of Construction, a school of sustainable engineering that's named for the guy who built the cool old hotel that its parent college just tore down.

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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