Best Strip Mall 2009 | Dana Park Village Square | People & Places | Phoenix

Though we'd love to give this category's award to a gorgeous Art Deco plaza or turn-of-the-century Gothic building, we're learning to embrace the realities of our fair city — which often means new construction. The developers of Mesa's Dana Park ventured beyond the modern cookie-cutter plan to create a new breed of strip mall that resembles an upscale Main Street. Yes, you'll find a host of chain stores here, such as Ann Taylor Loft and Apple, but there's also a handful of small businesses, including an ice cream parlor and two adorable children's boutiques. We admit we mainly come to Dana Park for the larger stores' clearance sections. The plaza isn't as busy as Scottsdale Fashion Square, so the clearance section at the Dana Park Anthropologie is bigger and better, not having been picked over. With fountains, a palatial white exterior, and shimmering ceiling-to-floor curtains flanking one retailer's grand entranceway, you can almost forget Dana Park is a strip mall. Almost.

Fans of old houses and cool architecture have grown accustomed to two types of home tours: those hosted by downtown's historic neighborhoods, like Encanto Palmcroft and F.Q. Story, and those private affairs hosted by snooty-boots homeowners who want to show off the glass-and-cement masterpiece they've just dropped onto the desert of north Scotts­dale. And then there's the annual Modern Phoenix Expo and Home Tour, which used to be one of the city's best-kept secrets but sold out this year in a matter of days and is now considered the hot ticket among Mid-Century aficionados. That's because instead of throwing open the doors to one lovely old neighborhood, the MoPhos provide a walking tour of a half-dozen or so modern homes in the Uptown Phoenix and Arcadia neighborhoods, including structures designed by Ralph Haver, Al Beadle, Calvin Straub, and Ned Sawyer, to name a few.

And they don't stop there. The tour, which typically takes place in April, includes an expo that gives participants an interactive view into restored Mid-Century homes, and at which local architects and experts discuss the importance of documenting the Valley's endangered pool of world-class Mid-Century Modern architecture. No wonder the event is now so popular. Make your reservation for next year now.

In the realm of central Phoenix historic districts, Del Norte Place is flanked by some heavy hitters: Encanto-Palmcroft, Willo, Roosevelt, and F.Q. Story. But this little sleeper of a neighborhood, dating to the 1920s, is an idyllic place. Its broad, tree-lined streets and carefully manicured lawns make you feel you're somewhere else, like Mayberry. People hang out on their front porches and kids ride their bikes and play in the street. The architecture varies from English Cottage to California ranch, with front porches rather than monster garages.

Spend any time here and it's evident that this is a tight-knit neighborhood. The well-organized Del Norte Place Neighborhood Association is all about being, well, neighborly. They organize neighborhood yard sales and get together for summer BBQs, holiday parties, and Easter egg hunts. Now, who's got the apple pie?

Mormons are proficient at lots of things — Jell-O salads and genealogy, to name just two. If you've ever had an interest in learning about your family tree, they can help you get started, no matter what your religion (or lack thereof). The Mesa Regional Family History Center is affiliated with the Mormon Church but is open to the general public. It's free and chock-full of useful classes, workshops, online tutorials, and research help. One of the highlights is the Hispanic training section, with programs in Spanish and English. With their hands-on workshops and assistance in navigating Internet genealogy sites, the volunteers at the Mesa Regional Family History Center know their stuff. They can help you plan your search and get you started. Registration required for some classes.

Historically speaking, Phoenix is a young town. There are no Medieval castles or Colonial courthouses, and most of the historic properties that do exist here have fallen into disrepair or been long forgotten. That's why we were thrilled to see the city invest two years and over $5 million in the restoration of Steele Indian School Park's Memorial Hall, which stood vacant since the '90s. Built in 1922, the gorgeous brick building features Mission Revival-style architecture, arched windows, and huge interior ballrooms originally used for school assemblies. Much of the building's original character remains, from exterior bricks bearing the names of former students to the refinished hardwood floors. The city isn't a Grinch with the newly prettified space either — Memorial Hall is open for tours, private parties, and the 350-seat theater rents to local dance companies.

Old buildings are torn down all too often in our neck of the woods. It's sad to watch bits of our history razed, especially when what appears in its place is often boring, ugly, or even worse, part of a corporate chain with an outlet on every corner. That's what makes PaisleyTown, the quaint village of outbuildings behind Grand Avenue's Paisley Violin, so special. These brightly colored little houses have quite a past. Constructed during World War II to house Italian and German prisoners of war, they've made their way to a quickly developing part of downtown. Loaded onto trucks and moved from their former home at 19th Avenue and McDowell Road, the cottages underwent the mother of all refurbs and fought their way through a year's worth of red tape to emerge all shiny and new. Even better, they've come full circle in their purpose. Instead of housing POWs, they now house emerging businesses. A hair salon, a gallery, a designer, and a vintage clothing store are but a few of the establishments giving new life to old buildings with a bellicose past.

Remember Sapna's Chillout Café at the downtown Phoenix Public Market? We do, because we'd actually wait in line there to taste an icy Grenada and some takeaway tahini-infused hummus. Now we go to Bragg's Pie Factory Building on Grand for the same tasty bites, but also because we love the funny, wedge-shaped interior of this groovy old structure. Owner Ana Borrajo has created a casual menu based in popular street foods from around the world, and she serves it up in a slice-of-pie-shaped glass enclosure, one of Phoenix's last examples of Streamline Moderne architecture. The Wi-Fi is free and the ambiance is unlike anyplace else. Glossy white walls hung with bright-colored Indian saris, smooth white cafe tables, leggy black chairs, and shiny stained-concrete floors all combine in a cozy slice of the past that's worth at least a peek.

No offense intended, but this place looks like a giant wedding cake. That is to say, a wedding cake frosted in yellow that's been bedazzled and covered in paste jewels. A wedding cake for a drag queen, maybe. Whatever you call it, the Islamic Mosque in Tempe is a favorite among locals who love unusual architecture. The Mosque, established just north of ASU's campus in 1984, is modeled after the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Its eight-sided structure features a minaret and a gold dome, which is something one doesn't see every day in Southwest cities. We love its glittery façade and its multi-textured exterior walls, which appear to have been hand-painted in a way that makes them appear almost tattooed. Check it out — and tell them Allah sent you.

We're in love with the downtown post office, plain and simple. It speaks to our fondness for old architecture, with its wide stone steps leading up to the front door, over which a giant lantern sways in front of an elaborate glass-and-grillwork doorway framed by concrete columns on either side. Inside we can't help but ooh and ahh over old (and rather cheesy) Southwestern-themed murals, commissioned in 1938 by the Fine Arts Section of the Treasury Department and painted by La Verne Black and Oscar E. Berninghaus. We usually make a beeline for the rows of ancient P.O. boxes, with their coppery metal doors, oversize keyholes, and little glass windows etched with gold and red numbers in an old-timey font. Built between 1932 and 1936, the two-story structure's maiden name is The Phoenix Federal Building, as its construction was part of a massive federal program undertaken in an attempt to forestall the Great Depression. The gorgeous Spanish Colonial Revival building, which opened to the public in 1936 and housed the city's main post office for more than 30 years, is the only federal building from the period still standing here. But even if it were surrounded by dozens of others, we'd still love the old P.O. the best. Arizona State University occupies much of the building now. Given ASU's bad track record with historic buildings, we plan to keep a close eye on one of our favorite Phoenix landmarks.

It's a Phoenix thing: There are a lot of buildings here that just aren't what they once were. Our personal fave is Breuners. Oops, we mean the Scottsdale Post Office on Scottsdale Road just north of McDowell. Not long after Breuners went belly-up in 2007, the post office moved in and turned this former furniture store into a place where one can buy stamps or send a box of cookies to one's aunt in Pennsylvania. And, because Phoenix architecture is just weird enough that it's entirely likely that someone may very well have designed a postal station fronted with glass showroom panels and giant display windows, it works. The former Breuners' long, low, peaked façade and big, ugly wrought-iron chandelier over the door are perfect for a south Scottsdale public building. It's enough to make you go out of your way just to buy a shipping carton.

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