Risking whiplash as he takes another gander at the red, white and blue architectural oddity--a ramshackle hacienda whose ragtag desert landscaping is adorned with painted wagon wheels--he gasps in disbelief.
"What the hell is that?"
Mentally rummaging through possibilities that range from a set for a David Lynch western to a home for aging hippies, he doesn't bother waiting for an answer. Instead, he simply commands the driver, "Go past again so I can take a picture!"
Faded and falling down, the fanciful fortress at 1431 East Jefferson continues to pack a powerful visual wallop. Surrounded by vacant lots and a sprinkling of scary-looking abandoned houses that only heighten its misplaced charm, the cheery eyesore that was once the showplace of this downtown residential district still screams, "Look at me!"
But if this house could speak, its voice today would be a wheezy rasp.
A scrawny chicken idly pecks for food amid the wine bottles and condom wrappers strewn about the grounds. Pulled loose from its mooring, a rotting staircase leading to the roof practically dangles from the side of building. And up on the roof, an off-kilter sun porch is gradually caving in on itself, giving the entire property the appearance of a collapsing wedding cake.
In a city with an incredibly short memory, the glorious old shambles stands as a reminder, both of how Phoenix once looked and how cavalierly the town treats members of its structural senior class. An architectural keepsake, the house is not; while vaguely Spanish in design, the hodgepodge of styles hews more closely to Hollywood's view of the West as envisioned in an old Roy Rogers picture than to anything architectural purists fight to preserve.
Still, the moldering manse commands attention if for no other reason than for its survival skills. Like a still-proud grande dame now reduced to a bedraggled bag lady, the corroding casa defiantly thumbs its nose at the wrecking ball that has laid waste to most of its contemporaries.
If the East Jefferson landmark looks like something out of a Depression-era Max Fleischer cartoon (with a little imagination, you can almost picture the windows turning into eyes and the front door opening like a mouth that spews out Betty Boop), at least it's in the right time zone. According to information gleaned from city directories, the house was built in 1930 by John Lopez, a laborer.
Several years later, Lopez sold the house to one Cordelia Montgomery, a black domestic who had formerly worked for a Phoenix doctor and his wife. Moving into the East Jefferson building, Montgomery made her living for the next 50 years by renting out seven small "apartments"--in reality, a series of single rooms located in cinder-block buildings and a corrugated metal shed at the rear of her property. Though unimaginably claustrophobic and primitive by today's apartment standards, the landlady's tiny rooms apparently filled a very real need for low-cost housing for her tenants in the largely black neighborhood.
Some 50 years after she moved in, declining health finally forced the indefatigable landlady to vacate the premises. Approaching 90, Montgomery moved to a niece's home in Prescott in 1982, where she died several years later.
On the market for years, the hacienda officially has had no occupants since its owner left 12 years ago. But barring the possibility that Montgomery was one of the worst housekeepers in history, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that for the past dozen years the house has been the scene of more than a few hobo hoe-downs. Both interior and exterior are piled high with ragged clothing, yellowing Playboy magazines and fast-food wrappers; on the roof is a discarded crutch. Earlier this summer, the house was almost reduced to kindling when vandals torched a couple of palm trees that stood near the driveway. Through one window, weeds actually can be seen growing inside the house. And there is enough peeling paint, splintered wood and other weather-beaten textures to keep a first-year photography class busy for an entire semester.
Those few remaining neighbors who've lived in the area long enough to remember the Montgomery residence in its heyday see the ignoble decline of the property as a glaring metaphor for the blight that has quietly engulfed the neighborhood during the past several decades.
"That place has severely deteriorated in the last five years--almost unbelievably so," says Leon Cherry, a retired state-tax auditor who has lived two blocks west of the Montgomery house for more than 50 years.
"It used to be a beautiful place with a beautiful lawn. She was just a little woman, but she really worked to keep that place nice," continues Cherry, whose own well-tended home probably looks much the same as it did 30 years ago. "Back then, course, everybody on this street did their little thing for the yard. There were citrus trees all along the street. You wouldn't know it now, but this street was really something to see."
The 77-year-old Winstona Aldrich may be one of the few people in town who can picture that scene without severely taxing her imagination. Having lived her entire life on East Jefferson, she remembers the street when a neighborhood grocery store, not a crack house, provided the local commerce of choice.
"Miss Montgomery used to keep the place very well kept up," reports the retired schoolteacher, unofficial neighborhood historian for the Eastlake district (so named for Eastlake Park at 16th Street and Jefferson). "The outside of her house was always neat and clean and very quaint, just like she was."
The daughter of Winston C. Hackett, the state's first black physician, Aldrich spent her childhood in a house just blocks east of the home in the 1300 block where she has lived with her husband since 1950.
"Years ago, this was a wonderful place to live," says Aldrich, whose memories of the area date back to the days when the street was an unpaved dirt road.
Reminiscing, she recalls graduating from, then teaching at, the Booker T. Washington School (now the New Times building), as well as walking a block north to Washington to catch a streetcar to the downtown shopping district. "We had the Boston Store, Sears, Goldwaters, Dorris-Heyman--all the big department stores," she explains. "For groceries, there was a Safeway up on 11th Street and Van Buren, but most of us just went to one of the neighborhood markets which were everywhere. There was a time when this was really quite a beautiful residential neighborhood."
But by the Fifties, Aldrich's dream street was slowly heading down the road-to-ruin as longtime residents--many of them white--abandoned the neighborhood for more modern homes in new subdivisions springing up on the outskirts of town.
"A lot of people began moving to the suburbs," says Aldrich. "Then we got new people moving in and out of the neighborhood. Most of them were less interested in keeping up the homes than the one who lived there before, so you can see where that led."
Aldrich sighs. "Before she died, my neighbor Mrs. Copeland kept her place immaculate. I'm just glad she can't see what's happened to it. Why, it's a disgrace!"
MDNMModern-day historians are trying to save several of the happier memories for posterity. It's way too late to do anything about the long-since-razed Booker T. Washington Memorial Hospital, the black clinic founded by Aldrich's father that once stood at the northwest corner of 13th Street and Jefferson. Through efforts of local preservationists, a move is under way to have nearby Swindall's Tourist Home (an East Washington boarding house that catered to black tourists and entertainers) named to the National Register of Historic Places. That designation has already been bestowed on the building at 1110 East Washington, former site of Jim Ong's Grocery and Meat Market.
While hardly a candidate for similar preservation efforts, Cordelia Montgomery's crumbling abode does have its own peculiar charm as a relic from better days. Rather than being repulsed by its seedy spell, Valley commuters who regularly pass the weathered ruin can't take their eyes off the ever-evolving work-in-progress; maybe this will be the day the sun porch loses its fight with gravity. Actually, nobody would be too surprised to drive by and discover the whole place has been reclaimed by the earth.
Yesterday, there was new graffiti.
Today, the charred palm trees are gone.