This is a story in which something marvelous happens. It's a story about how, not long ago, a bunch of bright, talented people came together to create a project both beautiful and useful.
This is also a story about how that beautiful, useful project, not too long after it was created, was allowed to fall apart and then was set upon by people who wanted to tear it down and replace it with something new and different, simply because the beautiful thing had begun to fall apart.
In other words, this is a story about historic buildings in Maricopa County.
Specifically, those buildings hunkering just beneath the shiny new light-rail tracks on the way into Tempe from Phoenix. You've seen them: the row of low, ramshackle structures clumped onto that little stretch of land known as Alpha Drive, on the perimeter of Arizona State University's Tempe campus between Sixth Street and University Drive, just west of Rural Road. If you didn't attend ASU or aren't familiar with Tempe, you might have thought, as you sped past them, that they were storage units for the nearby college or, perhaps, a cluster of tumbledown motels, heavily tagged with graffiti.
In fact, they were once a source of pride for both Tempe and ASU. They're what's left of the 10 Alpha Drive fraternity houses commissioned by the Arizona Board of Regents in 1961. They're the tattered, falling-down remains of a superbly designed project designed to provide housing for the college's fraternities as well as show off the finest architects working here in the middle of the last century, men whose work has since gone on to inspire and be celebrated, men like Ralph Haver and Kemper Goodwin and John Sing Tang and Edward L. Varney. And — perhaps most shockingly — work inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright and designed by the apprentices of Wright's Taliesin West.
While it's alarming that Alpha Drive's historically significant buildings may be knocked down, it's outrageous that anything associated with Wright's legacy could make it onto any demolition list. Wright, deemed "the greatest American architect of all time" by the American Institute of Architects, is both world-famous and a local treasure. Scottsdale's Taliesin West, his winter home from 1937 until his death in 1959, is a renowned architecture school. Both Tempe's Grady Gammage Auditorium (Wright's final public commission) and his associates' contributions to the Arizona Biltmore resort are widely celebrated. The rambling floor plans and use of native stone in his residential designs revolutionized Arizona architecture, and many of the Wright houses still standing in Phoenix have been carefully restored and are listed in national historic registries.
But not on Alpha Drive, where the frat house proudly designed by Wright's Taliesin Associates is — if correspondence between ASU principals is any indication — not the university's "problem," but rather just another old building. Once the higher-profile Taliesin house is gone, the e-mails seem to suggest, it'll be easier to pass off the rest of Greek Row as just another bunch of dilapidated old buildings that need tearing down. And so the Frank Lloyd Wright house — and all the other frats that surround it, houses carefully crafted by Arizona's best architects — is almost certainly doomed.
Arnold Roy remembers March 31, 1963, as if it were yesterday. That's the day that the Phi Delta Theta house opened; the day Roy hosted a public tour of the fraternity house with the building's designer, Wes Peters, then the chief architect at Taliesin West and a former apprentice of Wright's. He remembers Peters' pride in the place, which Roy calls "the centerpiece of that whole row of houses" and recalls how those who toured the street were wowed by what they saw.
They should have been. "Imagine (Alpha Drive) on opening day," local architecture historian Walt Lockley rhapsodizes in an online essay about Greek Row, "[in] the pinnacle year of Mid-Century design, all the properties fresh and crisp, a bit like an old-school housing display. Each architect approached the assignment with his own taste and imagination, each design unique and competing with each other on this short street."
Lockley, a homegrown architecture aficionado whose writing on local architecture appears in Desert Living magazine and the Modern Phoenix Web site (www.modernphoenix.net) goes on in his essay (which you can read yourself at www.waltlockley.com/asu/asugreek.htm) to enthuse about the deep talents of Kemper Goodwin, Fred Guirey, Ralph Haver, Ed Varney, T.S. Montgomery, Taliesin Associates, and the five other design firms whose high-concept, seemingly unrelated buildings had come together in such a big way.
"People knew this project was really special," says Roy, who's been with Taliesin since he graduated from high school in 1952 and is secretary of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. "They'd seen the other fraternity houses, all very nice, and then they saw what Wes had done here — the colors, the lines, the choice of materials — it wasn't lost on anyone that this place was something. Wes had a fine eye. You drove down that street and you saw this one and thought, Now there's history. And they want to tear it down — such a beautiful building."
It's not so beautiful anymore. Boarded up and surrounded by chain link, the once-proud house is in shambles — its paint peeling, its window casings cracked. Despite its pedigree, the Phi Delta Theta house is almost certain to wind up, like its ASU-owned counterparts, as a pile of rubble. ASU has already torn down its not-historically-significant Sorority Row, sending its female memberships into dormitory housing. The university wants to demolish what's left of its Greek Row within the next year or two, replacing it with a major multi-use facility featuring a hotel, restaurant, and non-Greek student housing, thus obliterating an historic architectural project and a notable chapter in the university's fraternity system.
ASU officials have been waylaid by a depressed real estate market and by complicated shared ownership of the properties. But they won't, according to principal players in the proposed teardown, stop until this, the site of umpteen keggers and thousands of pizza deliveries, is history.
Lockley thinks they'll do it, too, using any means imaginable. He worries that there's slimy stuff afoot at ASU; that the university wants to obscure the importance of these structures in order to get them ripped down before anyone with any real power can stop them.
"I've seen it happen too often before," he says. "A developer buys an old building here, allows it to fall apart, deliberately obscures its architectural significance, then tears it down because it's an eyesore."
Lockley's fears aren't unfounded. Both of the already demolished frat houses — Ralph Haver's streamlined Alpha Gamma Rho house and the Sigma Alpha Epsilon residence designed by Glenn A. McCollum — were owned by ASU. The university didn't need permission to rip these houses down; didn't need to wrangle or cajole with fraternities that owned the properties. They just hired a bulldozer.
The university won't have it so easy with the remaining frats, although there's evidence in the reams of correspondence generated by ASU on the subject of the frat houses that the university isn't above strong-arming landowners into selling their property to ASU. Read with a careful eye — the letters, e-mails, and reports released in response to a public-records request appear aimed at scaring Alpha Drive landowners with crime statistics, detailed descriptions of the crumbling frat houses, and a single news article about a recent rape that reportedly took place at one of the houses. Someone has even gone to the trouble of creating a chart that ranks the frats in order of their crime-worthiness — a sort of Hit Parade of drunken brawls and misbehaviors.
All this doom-and-gloom is followed — especially in proposals aimed at the property owners, who have joined forces in a corporation called The Threshold Project LLC — by glowing descriptions of alternative plans for an 18-acre site (bordered by Rural Road, Stadium Way, University Drive, Sixth Street) that would include student housing facilities for both fraternities and sororities, parking, a hotel, a conference center, and retail shops. The remainder of the site would be turned over to American Campus Communities, the Texas-based developer that recently erected ASU's student housing complex, Vista del Sol, and would probably erect a similarly monster-size apartment complex for students not affiliated with the frats.
There's an urgency to the Alpha Drive correspondence, as if its authors are in a rush to make their case before there's time for anyone to consider or discover the historic value of these buildings.
In one startling exchange between ASU assistant vice president of university real estate Steven Nielsen and former executive vice president Carol Campbell, Campbell seems to imply that the solution to obscuring the buildings' historic value may be in persuading property owners to scrape the land before selling the property to ASU. After receiving a May 2008 document from ASU architecture professor Ronald McCoy explaining the provenance of the Taliesin-designed frat house, Campbell forwards it to Nielsen with an eye-rolling note attached — "More complications!" — that speaks volumes about how little Campbell cares about the building's significance. Later that same day, she writes to Nielsen, "If we do get to the point of doing a land swap, do you think they will scrape the land first?" In other words, the importance of the Taliesin property won't be ASU's problem if what its buying is an empty lot.
"It's a shame," says Ken Lowell, author of Sun and Sand: The Art and Influence of Southwestern Design, a forthcoming e-book about mid-century Southwestern architecture. "It's bad enough that you guys keep tearing up what's left of that town's past, but now you want to crumble a project that's really like no other. Alpha Drive's frat houses are like those old 'Easy Streets' that developers used to build in the '50s and '60s, where you could go look at a whole block of model homes to see what your street would look like before you bought there."
Lowell, a Ralph Haver fan who grew up in Glendale and lives now in Springfield, Massachusetts, thinks no matter what happens to Alpha Drive, it's already been compromised. "They tore down the Haver," he says, pointedly. "And where was your Historic Preservation when that happened?"
Tempe's Historic Preservation department, which advocates the preservation of at-risk buildings that are 50 years old or older, has no interest in Alpha Drive, Jeff Abraham, spokesman for the frats, insists. "The fraternities met with Historic Preservation about three years ago, when there was some effort to preserve the old Valley National Bank building," he says, referring to the Visitors Center, the famous domed structure on ASU's campus near the northwest corner of Rural and Apache that was torn down early last year. "And the preservation people really had no interest in even looking at the Alpha Drive site."
The Historic Preservation people understood, Abraham says, that Greek Row was too far gone to save. It apparently needs to be wiped out, simply because it's resting on valuable land.
There's an underlying irony to all the teardown talk. ASU President Michael Crow has made sustainability — the art of living with environmental and social responsibility — a cornerstone of what he's dubbed the "New American College." In 2006, ASU opened the nation's first School of Sustainability, where students explore water scarcity and urban air quality. Crow, who arrived at ASU in 2002 after 11 years at Columbia University, is often accused of wanting to re-create ASU in his image. But what seems more true is Crow's desire to wipe out ASU's architectural history in the name of more sustainable buildings. The university now requires that any new building erected at ASU must be built to exacting environmental standards — standards very different than those used by the craftsmen who created Greek Row a half-century ago. Why restore interesting old houses, Crow and his cronies appear to be asking, when you can knock them down and put up something green?
Crow has initiated an extraordinary number of these "sustainable" construction projects, most recently a $120 million residential complex for students of ASU's Barrett Honors College, which will reside not far from the recently demolished Visitors Center. Much of the construction budget has gone to expanding the college with new campuses in downtown Phoenix (home to the university's nursing, journalism, and public policy schools), the former Williams Air Force Base in Mesa (where the planned Polytechnical Institute will eventually cover 3 million square feet of research space), and a former shopping center in south Scottsdale that now houses the college's international business center.
Apparently, all this expansion must take place at the expense of what Lockley jokingly refers to as "a bunch of old buildings" that are standing in the way of ASU's glittering new expansion. It's a renovation that's easier for the university to pull off, he believes, with buildings that are off the public's radar. Lockley points out that when ASU was criticized for knocking over that well-regarded VNB building last year, the university issued a statement that the structure's famous domed roof would be carefully stored away until it could be displayed somewhere appropriate.
Lockley thinks this is both hilarious and sad. "Where," he wonders, "do you display a giant, paneled dome roof?"
It's one thing to take down a bank or a leaky old frat house, even one designed by the disciples of Frank Lloyd Wright. But what's to stop ASU from one day tearing down Grady Gammage Auditorium, another university-owned building that's not listed as "historic" and which is certainly not as new or in as great shape as other arts facilities around town? Lockley thinks this is unlikely. "People may not know or care about a little frat house in Tempe," he says, "but everyone knows Gammage."
Lockley and Lowell both agree that while ASU's new buildings are environmentally responsible, none of the buildings is especially memorable or distinctive.
"None of these buildings offer a clue as to how one is meant to relate to them," says Lockley, who thinks a dentist's office should look like a dentist's office. "Assuming they're even allowed to stay standing, the only thing these structures will be remembered for is their environmental responsibility."
Sometimes Peter Slayton and his fellow frat brothers squeeze through Phi Delta Theta's boarded-up windows and wander through its ruined interior. They admire the sloping ceilings and what Slayton calls "the cool little secret rooms."
Slayton, a 21-year-old business and communications major at ASU, lives at Alpha Epsilon Pi. He's appalled that the university wants to "crap all over" the Greek system by ripping down the cool old buildings he and some of his frat brothers have come to love.
He believes that ASU has as little regard for its fraternities — those Greek-lettered, single-sex, initiatory organizations launched in the 18th century to help socialize undergrads new to college life — as it does for what's left of its significant architecture. But while ASU tussles with ways to force its fraternities into more easily controlled, on-campus housing, the fate of the Greek system nationwide remains up in the air. While Columbia University has recently expanded its fraternities' presence, another New York college, Alfred University, has voted to end frats altogether. Dartmouth College continues to funnel money into reorganizing its Greek system, while other campuses — notably Maine's Bowdoin and Colby Colleges — have shut down their Greek houses for good.
Critics say the fraternity system provides little more than an organized opportunity for drinking and hazing and contributes nothing to the educational environment most universities are after. Even some of the fraternities' brethren are willing to cop to declining interest in the Greeks.
"Most of our national organizations are feeling the impact as we look at the number of new recruits at pledge time," says a former member of ASU's Delta Sigma Phi who has worked with the fraternity's national chapter and, therefore, didn't want to be quoted by name. "We're having a long and hard look at whether we're providing a real service to a college community with the scholarship and leadership opportunities that the Greeks used to offer."
The Greek system at ASU was never all that great to begin with. "Mostly, we just drank and got clobbered, you know," the former Sigma Phi member says. "There was never really a lot of focus on the tradition of our fraternity or whatever. It was just about belonging to a cool club. Being 'in' instead of 'out.'"
ASU's answer to keeping its "cool clubs" alive is not to do away with the Greek system, but to force it to behave. The most effective way to do that also guarantees that the university will wind up with millions of dollars of Alpha Drive property at its disposal. And that's moving the frats into barracks-like dormitories like Adelphi II, one of the newer residential buildings on ASU's Tempe campus.
"We call it 'The Prison,'" says one member of the Delta Chis who also asked not to be named. The Chis are housed in Aldephi II, where their partying is more easily curtailed by strict rules and regulations designed to eliminate alcohol use on campus. (Alpha Drive remains the only spot on campus where drinking guidelines remain relatively lax, at least for those of legal drinking age.)
All this control, Slayton says, will drive a stake through the heart of the already ailing ASU Greek system. The Chis already feel completely divorced from Greek life, he claims, because they were consigned to housing away from the other fraternities after their Alpha Drive house was demolished. It's the first step, he believes, in doing away with the fraternities altogether.
One can hardly blame ASU for wanting to strangle its Greek frat boys, considering its collective recent past. There was the mess with student government vice president Brian Buck's appearance in Shane's World #29: Frat Row Scavenger Hunt 3, which Buck allowed to be filmed inside the Sigma Nu house in September of 2001. Worse, there was the death of freshman Jessica Woodin that same year. After partying at the university's Lambda Chi Alpha house, the 19-year-old was killed in a hit-and-run accident by an ASU alumnus who's now in prison. The Lambda Chis were shut down by their national organization the following year.
Abraham, the Greek spokesman, insists there's no attempt to condemn or do away with the Greek system at ASU, in spite of its various misconducts. He calls the Greeks "an important part of this and any other major university" and is expecting this year's frat rush to be "as big as it's ever been." He swears that, as far as he knows, the sororities "thrived" after being uprooted and moved into campus dorms.
Yet the stories of debauchery and death get trotted out whenever anyone tries to stand up for keeping the Greek frats where they're at. These are sad stories but, Lockley says, they're a flimsy argument for tearing down significant architecture in a town that has precious little of it to begin with.
"They don't care about architecture," Slayton says. "Which is too bad, because I'd say pretty much every person in every frat wouldn't want to see the old places knocked down. One of the, like, cool things about being in a frat is all the history. But ASU thinks the frats are an eyesore."
At one time, those eyesores were a point of pride for ASU. Building a Greek row from scratch was an unusual move for a university of any size, but in Tempe, it was practically a necessity. Where American colleges typically bought up old, dilapidated houses near their campuses and renovated them as dorm and fraternity housing, the newish city of Tempe had no nearby old Victorians to offer up.
But rather than housing its Greeks in a single, perched fraternity house, as has Northern Arizona University, or scattering on-campus houses designed by the architect that designed its classroom buildings, as did the University of Arizona, or hiring an up-and-coming firm to slam up claptrap college housing, the Regents went looking for the best local architectural talent of the day, commissioning from each firm a frat house that would represent the distinctive style of its namesake or lead designer. The list included both already famous and up-and-coming architects, and reads today like a register of some of the most important names in our architectural history: Kemper Goodwin; Fred Guirey; Ralph Haver; Ed Varney, T.S. Montgomery, and Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin Associated Architects. Each architect was given free rein, and each approached the commission as that rarest of assignments: a chance to create a building that would stand as a unique example of his own style and imagination, one that would be displayed alongside nine other buildings by nine other designers. For many of the architects, the money offered was lousy, but the chance to compete for attention on the same short stretch of land with every other designer of distinction was apparently too great an opportunity to pass up. Each of the 10 firms agreed.
Commissioning fraternities was a bold move, one that was funded in part by a federal grant and in smaller part by the fraternities themselves, which were asked to contribute a whopping 6 percent of the frat houses' construction costs.
Each of the buildings is designed very much like an especially well-fashioned motor lodge, with rows of single-room dwellings often grouped around a common area or courtyard, and always an adjacent parking lot. Seen collectively, the frats stand as a tribute to the pinnacle of Mid-Century design.
Alpha Epsilon Phi, designed by Fred Guirey's firm, is the least interesting of the lot, although one suspects that's because Guirey, Srnka, and Arnold had been working for ASU since its inception and appear to have attempted to match the rather somber classroom buildings they'd already designed for the university. Its low-slung red brick construction is drab, and its dirt-level casement windows are the frat's only showy touch. (Lockley wonders whether this building, the cheapest of the 10, hasn't been altered in some way over the years; whether it was once less modest than it appears today.)
The most expensive of the ASU frats, contracted at $264,000, is the James Pleinart house designed for Sigma Nu. It's also the most ridiculed of the Alpha Drive houses, probably because of its simple, faux-futuristic paneled design (Lockley calls it "the TraveLodge frat") or perhaps because it was the location of a notorious porno movie starring ASU student government VP Brian Buck a few years ago.
John Sing Tang, the first Chinese-American architect in Arizona, went on to become a celebrated designer of Modernist homes. At the peak of his career, he designed what was then the Alpha Tau Omega house (and later home to Phi Kappa Alpha), an oddball, squarish two-story that was gutted by fire 12 years ago and has been closed ever since.
Kemper Goodwin's Phi Sigma Kappa house is the most ASU-centric of the frats — and for good reason. Goodwin designed most of ASU's original Tempe campus (his Memorial Union building introduced Modernism to ASU in 1955), and his frat house mirrors the school's traditional box-like forms, but wrapped in curvilinear canopies with goofy, space-age cutouts and geometric overlays.
Arguably the most significant of the buildings is the Tau Kappa Epsilon house, designed as the Phi Delta Theta house by Taliesin Associated Architects. It's a classic Frank Lloyd Wright design, with neither front nor rear façade, its exterior breezeways bordered by a scalloped railing surrounding a colossal red-brick chimney. Built only three years after Wright's death, the house is now vacant, fenced off, and in immediate danger of being knocked over.
That, according to Nielsen, is because it's just another old pile of bricks. "The Phi Delta Theta house is the only property anyone deems historically significant," Nielsen says, "and only because of its connections to Frank Lloyd Wright."
He offers as proof the fact that Phi Delta Theta offered to sell the building to ASU, which wasn't interested. Neither was Taliesin, which has apparently divorced itself from the property. There's reportedly a private owner who's exploring the possibility of getting the building put on the historic registry, then relocating it.
If this man exists, he'd better hurry.
Most of the remaining fraternity houses remain in decent shape, although several have no central air-conditioning, relying on window A/C units to cool bedrooms. At Alpha Epsilon Pi, the Ethernet cables and some of the plumbing are mounted on the outside of the building's walls, but the bathrooms are new and its communal kitchen is the best on Alpha Drive.
"The other frats want a kitchen like ours," Slayton says. "But no one wants to put any money into fixing stuff if the school is going to seize the houses and knock them down."
Slayton has become a Greek Row advocate of sorts, devoting himself to collecting old photos of the houses in their heyday and documenting reasons the Greek system works. One of his favorite platforms is the free labor that he says fraternity brothers gladly give to their homes.
"You have, like, a whole group of guys who live there who take care of the place for free," he says.
Former Tempe mayor Neil Giuliano remembers pitching in to maintain Sigma Nu when he lived there in the '80s. "We were able to keep the fraternities in good shape," he recalls, "and the alumni would step in and provide extra money for new tile or a coat of paint every couple of years."
That era has passed. "Today's students have zero influence," Giuliano says of the Greek system, "and the already small groups of alumni who care are dwindling."
So are the people, Lockley says, who care about old buildings. "Architectural significance is a dying idea, like the Stereopticon or the paperback book. There's no vision or concern regarding the beauty or importance of architecture."
This would all be a lot more disconcerting if the real estate market hadn't tanked, a fact that's certainly stalled the wrangling of these properties from their various owners. But Greek spokesman Jeff Abraham swears the project has never been on hold, nor has the dreary real estate market slowed its progress.
"It's the negotiations and the many points of view — ASU wants one thing, the fraternities want something else — that have slowed things to a crawl," he says. The original Threshold proposal sought to develop the new site in conjunction with the university, but ASU's numerous demands has led to Threshold "assisting," Abraham says, in the development of the privately owned property. The sticking point for ASU appears to be what Abraham calls "alcohol policies," which certainly refers to the university's attempts to place restrictions on the nonstop drinking that is a tradition in frat houses.
Other than that, Abraham insists, no one really cares about the architectural significance of the ASU frats. "With the exception of a very few individuals, no one is worried about keeping what's there," he says. "These are buildings that are 45, 50 years old, built for students who had a different approach to student life than they do today. Gang showers, shared rooms — these were things that were more typical then. But the fraternities want something new, now, and are looking out for their own survival, which is why they've gotten all this started."
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But even as the Threshold Project races to its own finish line, Abraham says it won't be much before the fall of 2012 until the construction gets under way. Lockley hopes that this will buy some time for preservationists who want to save the frat houses from extinction.
"It's very much an Arizona tradition to be strangely forgetful about our architectural past," he says. "These buildings are public art, built in a place like no other in the country. Knocking them down wouldn't benefit anyone — not the fraternities, and certainly not our history. If Arizona has a lack of cultural identity here, it's not because we're working hard to maintain it."
Author Ken Lowell thinks ASU's plans to flatten its frats is the beginning of the end of the university's original architecture. "There's another Haver building over there," he says, referring to the Social Sciences building on ASU's Tempe campus. "And it's got a top floor that's been closed for years. Now, when you have an old building by a famous architect at a school that's run by a guy who's Mr. Sustainability, and the building is leaking, you fix it."
He pauses for dramatic effect. "Unless," Lowell finally says, "you were planning to let that building go to hell, so you could tear it down."