Best Mall 2011 | Scottsdale Fashion Square | People & Places | Phoenix
We are not sure why outdoor malls are so trendy these days, because having grown up in the Valley, we find nothing more comforting than the blast of freezing cold, good-smelling air that greets you when you open the door at Scottsdale Fashion Square. We've been around so long that we remember when SFS was an outdoor mall — when you had to hoof it in the heat from Guggy's to Goldwater's, or get in your car to drive to Sakowitz. Now Goldwater's is (several generations later) Barney's, and we're thinking the old Guggy's was about where Anthropologie is now. Sakowitz is Neiman Marcus. Not a bad trade, and the whole thing's enclosed, so you won't get wet from some misguided misters. Love. All our favorite shops are here at Fashion Square — they've even got Pita Jungle in the food court and Modern Steak for fancier feasts. And did we mention Barney's?
Manhattan has the Hearst Tower, the first truly green skyscraper in the country. In Los Angeles, it's the Audubon Center at Debs Park, with more than half its materials locally manufactured and the first building in the United States to receive a platinum rating under the renowned Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) system. Here in the Valley, though, we're greener than green, thanks to the forward-thinking, desert-loving developers who built DC Ranch, Scottsdale's preeminent golf course community. The developers approached the McDowell Mountains as an asset by integrating walking roads and bike paths into a landscape that embraces the desert, rather than trying to obscure it with bearing walls as so many desert-centric developments do. We say, if you're going to live in the desert, live in the desert — which means being able to look out your window and see cactus and sand, not brick walls and pavement.
It's not often that a building turns out looking exactly like the architectural drawing that inspired it. But somehow, Optima's location just north of Scottsdale Fashion Square materialized into a modern version of the famed hanging gardens of Babylon, chock-full of lush climbing plants and beautiful flowering bushes with blossoms the muted orange and purple colors of an Arizona sunset. The multi-tiered complex — which houses condos, restaurants, shops, and an art gallery — boasts a massive central courtyard, with gorgeous fountains and plush sitting areas dotted with colorful couches. The bottom floor of the open expanse offers an amazing view of the whole building, and it always makes us feel as though we're vacationing in a tropical paradise, without ever leaving the desert.
We don't mind a little history lesson with our home tour, so long as it's fun — and Modern Phoenix always provides a nice mix of both education and entertainment to fans of mid-century architecture from all over the Valley. Last April, Modern Phoenix's Alison King and her many dedicated midcentury cronies threw open the doors on a dozen rehabilitated midcentury homes in Sunnyslope (including a few contemporary models, among them houses by architects Ralph Haver, Paul Christian Yauger, and James Trahan. Several of the houses even had vintage cars parked out in front. But King and company didn't stop there, offering a full day of free slide shows and hands-on workshops — with themes like "How to Research Your Midcentury Modern Home" and "Modern Scottsdale" — in collaboration with the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. In addition, a Modern Marketplace Expo offered a day full of midcentury design, architecture, landscape, and furnishings aimed at '50s fans everywhere. No wonder this wildly popular tour sells out every year!

Best Hunt for Evidence of an Underground Bowling Alley

The Gold Spot

It's our own Bigfoot — or is it?

Oh, sure. Everyone's heard about the Gold Spot Bowling Alley. And over the summer, rumors about the long-shuttered underground space grew even louder. We couldn't help obsessing. Local photographer Dayvid LeMmon created a Facebook page for the abandoned spot, across Central from the Westward Ho, a few weeks ago. He checked in a few times, and since we'd heard a few locals got tours, we were all over him. But LeMmon readily admitted that while he was equally obsessed, he'd been equally unlucky. He hadn't been down to see that darn bowling alley, either.

The Gold Spot closed in about 1950, and the cellar and buildings above were sold to the city, which supposedly blocked off the tunnels from the Westward Ho.

Today, we're told, there isn't much left underground — just a few painted grooves in the floor where the old lanes used to be and a piece of a wall mural of a bowling pin. Above ground, the glass bricks in the sidewalk still illuminate the space where bowlers (and, decades later, late-night partiers, including DJ Ariel) used to hang.

We made a few visits to the Westward Ho, and our requests for a tour or even confirmation of the Gold Spot connection were rejected. On a hot, midday walk around the space, we noticed a gap in the tiles. So we returned with the founder of the location's Facebook page, lowered a camera into the hole, and captured what's left of our local mythology.

Just days before publication, an old friend unearthed an even older treasure: a brochure from the 1940s that mentioned Gold Spot. Mystery solved.

To see a panoramic photo of the underground bowling alley, visit

Historic home tours have become a tradition in our town, and we love any opportunity to go play looky-loo in the old-time houses downtown. But, by far, our favorite is the Willo Home Tour, on which we get to see a nice mix of early-20th-century custom homes and handsome housing developments built in the '30s and '40s. Tract homes never looked as good as they do in Willo, where big baseboards and ancient hardwood floors are the order of the day. We love the outdoor shopping and dining concessions, where we always come away with some great Hanukkah gifts and a stomach full of fun food. Still, we'll admit that our favorite part of this nicely organized, warmly staffed wintertime festival is the opportunity to ogle the folks who come out to look at window treatments and finials and, occasionally, to peek into strangers' closets. We love to park ourselves on a Willo street corner and check out the Scottsdale moms who always act as if they've never seen a house built before last year; the west-siders who ooh and ahh over how high the ceilings (and how small the rooms!) are in old houses; and the historic architecture snobs who sneak around looking for updated kitchens to scoff at. Fun!

Best Downtown Building to Poke Your Head Into

Westward Ho

Ah, to have vacationed in the Valley in 1928, the year the Westward Ho Resort opened. The 15-story skyscraper was the height of glamour, the tip-top of the local food chain — and you can still glimpse a bit of that today. Providing you can get inside.The term "flop house" is not a nice one, and we're not even sure it technically applies, but this place is close and probably worse, if the smell in the lobby on a recent August afternoon was any indication. Only residents can roam the halls, one of the two security guards on duty warned us, explaining that the Westward Ho is now home to the elderly and "mentally disabled" (and with the latter, she made rude loopty-loops around her own ear — the international sign for "cuckoo"). No one we saw seemed particularly cuckoo, just down and out — even though they are living in a building with one of the prettiest lobbies in town. If you are fortunate to get inside, be sure to look both up (at the incredibly intricate ceiling) and down (at the perfectly preserved, painted tiles) and sneak past the guards to check the painted wooden beams in what appears to be a living room, waiting to be furnished. Such an ignored treasure — such a shame. If this place were in Portland, Oregon, it by now would be a hotel/brewery/nightclub/movie theater/tattoo parlor with a restaurant that grows its own herbs. Sigh.
In April, Michael Levine was back at it, cursing and working on the oldest remaining warehouse in Phoenix. The local artist, historic preservation advocate, and operator of Levine Machine Development pulled out his scissor lift and power washer, in hopes of restoring the Phoenix Seed & Feed Building before the national spotlight came with the MLB All-Star Game. With a high-pressure washer, Levine carefully lifted layers of old paint, brick by brick, to reveal the original Seed & Feed sign, which is more than 100 years old. And while a fresh old face isn't exactly what anyone hopes for after a lift appointment, it's exactly what (more than) a few Phoenix buildings need.
There used to be swastikas all over Arizona. And this was way before neo-Nazi-hugger Russell Pearce became state Senate president. Yep, back in pre-WWII Sand Land, swastikas proliferated: on official state road signs, on gas stations, hotels, maps, Navajo rugs and jewelry, baskets by the Maricopa and Pima Indians, you name it.Though the symbol is thousands of years old, an ancient icon of good fortune in many cultures, it was also a quintessential symbol of the American West. For the Navajos especially, it was a religious symbol, referred to as the "whirling logs," with its own mythology, used in art and sacred sand sculptures.Anglo-Americans adopted its use, and the symbol was so popular that it even adorned official buildings, such as the one housing the Arizona Department of Agriculture, catty-corner from the state Capitol, on the northeast corner of Adams and Washington streets. Next time you're there, look up, and you'll see swastika tiles ringing the roof of the structure, built in 1930, before that dork Adolf Hitler came along and really ruined a good thing.
All summer, all the time, it was "haboob this" and "haboob that" — amazing how a word we'd never heard before (despite having lived in Phoenix for decades) got tired practically overnight. For a while, all the boobie jokes ("I Love Haboobs," written in dust on your back windshield, for example) were funny, but by the end of August we were just ready for some rain. And we never did get a haboob to match our first — a real humdinger of a dust storm (that's what we called them back in the day) that put up a wall of dust between here and Tucson bigger than any of us old timers had ever seen. It was a spectacular (and terrifying) display — and one we're still cleaning up from. The latest reports estimate that the heavens dumped 50,000 pounds of dust on the city that evening alone.

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