Staying Power

Vic Kramer, who turned 79 this week, sits in the living room of his home and recalls his earliest memory. He was being held in someone's arms, he says, and he was looking at a light fixture.

"It was one of these," he says, pointing to an antique sconce on the wall.

And it could have been that exact lamp. Kramer, grandson of Valley pioneers, has lived his whole life in the same downtown Phoenix house. He did spend some years away at college, in the military and on trips to American Legion conventions at home and abroad.

But he always came back to the house at Seventh Street and Pierce, a stately, complex structure with a green roof.

"The price was right," he says, smiling.

A descendant of a successful immigrant family that helped shape Phoenix, and the only child of a prominent attorney, Kramer worked in real estate, cared for his family's properties and invested in the stock market over the years. So it wasn't money that prevented him from tonier neighborhoods.

It was pure sentiment. He loves the home, with his boyhood room intact, and its location. And through his blue eyes, he can picture the neighborhood in more innocent times: proud, well-kept, on the outskirts of a vibrant downtown.

When Seventh Street was just two lanes, it was lined with lush ash trees that shaded the home's front porch. That was where Kramer used to sit on his grandmother's lap and listen to her read stories in German. It was where he once opened the type of Christmas present that is every little boy's dream -- a crate containing a new puppy. It was where he and his family used to spend their days watching the world go by, tracking the changes to the city's downtown landscape.

But now, a single standing ashtray adorns the porch. Any chairs or tables set out get stolen, Kramer says. The ash trees are long gone and the sun is punishing during the summer. Seventh Street spans seven lanes, and traffic rushes by. Once a safe, well-traveled passageway for children walking to school, it's now a treacherous thoroughfare.

From his front window, Kramer can see the Westward Ho, once a posh new hotel, and the Phoenix Union High School campus, once the center of his life. He can also see the rubble of the demolished high school buildings; the looming outline of Bank One Ballpark, built on the site of some of the city's oldest homes; and abandoned houses with broken windows, peeling rooftops and dying trees.

Vic Kramer's home has changed as well. There have been additions to his house, including on-site caretakers, a Doberman guard dog and an elaborate security system. A garage houses his Rolls-Royce limousine. And Kramer has entertained the thought that maybe it's time for him to move, to finally leave the home that still holds him in its arms.

But health problems have restricted his mobility these days. Furthermore, he can't imagine sifting through three generations of possessions to prepare for a move.

"With the accumulation of junk, the idea of getting rid of it was just overwhelming," he says.

Kramer's "junk" could fill a small museum.

Caretaker Helen Harmon, who lives on Kramer's property with her husband, sighs as she ushers a visitor around the tri-level, multi-building compound. He just has so much stuff, she says, pointing to stacks of paperwork on the dining room table, shelves of books and boxes stacked in a library, dusty mementos and antique furniture crammed in the attic bedroom that used to be his.

But thanks to Kramer's pack-rat nature and his sharp memory for family history, he has amassed a collection of possessions, tales and opinions that offer a rich view of Phoenix, past and present. He can speak of the city's growth, development and challenges, beginning in the days before Phoenix even existed.

Vic Kramer's grandfather, Alexander Steinegger, arrived in America with three of his brothers during the Civil War. German-speaking natives of Neu-Ulm, Switzerland, Steinegger's family floated barges up and down the Rhine River. With not enough craft to employ all the children, some were sent to the United States to make new lives.

Three of the brothers were immediately sent to fight in the Civil War. Alexander, who Kramer says had one leg shorter than the other, was spared a military stint, thus losing contact forever with his brothers. He took the money and the gold watch his father had given him and headed west. Steinegger made it to Missouri and then Wyoming via covered wagon, then traded his watch for a barrel of whiskey. In Cheyenne, he parlayed the whiskey into a team of horses and a wagon, which he used to operate a freight business.

On trips to the Arizona territory to bring supplies to the troops fighting the Indians, he came through the area that would become Phoenix.

"He always liked the Valley, but there wasn't anyone living here at the time," says Kramer. After one of the first settlers, Jack Swilling -- known as the founder of Phoenix -- started an irrigation company, Steinegger decided to homestead here.

In 1867, he settled on 160 acres near what is now known as the East Lake neighborhood. His land stretched from 12th to 16th streets, from Van Buren Street to Jefferson. On land he owned near the river, he grew hay to feed the horses at Fort McDowell. He also raised peaches.

Kramer says his grandfather cast an important vote in 1870 in deciding where the Phoenix townsite would be -- but he never revealed which way he voted. Factions were split between those who wanted the townsite where downtown is now and those (including Swilling) who preferred a spot near the present-day intersection of 36th Street and Van Buren. Steinegger was the largest landowner between the two sites, according to Kramer, and he claimed the current site was selected by a one-vote margin.

When the town's first lots were sold in 1871, Steinegger traded some of his land on the outskirts of town and bought several downtown lots. He also developed two gold and silver mines north of the area.

Steinegger and a friend, Emil Thoma, opened a restaurant at 132 East Washington Street, where the Sports City Grill stands today. Kramer says his grandfather watched his partner pine for his family still in Germany, particularly a sister, Caroline, whose photo he carried in a locket. Steinegger offered to pay for the sister and other family members to come to Arizona. He then married the sister, whose image he had seen in the locket, saving Caroline Thoma from a miserable job as a charwoman in Germany.

Alexander, a stern-faced man with a scraggly beard, married the blue-eyed Caroline in 1889 at the only Catholic church in town, St. Mary's. They had two sons in the apartment behind their restaurant. Steinegger also built one of the first two-story office buildings in town and an inn at 27 East Monroe Street. Called the Steinegger Lodging House when it opened in 1889, it was the St. Francis Hotel when Hilda Steinegger, Vic Kramer's mother, was born there in 1890.

Today, the space houses the Golden West Hotel, a flophouse that Kramer says is the oldest downtown business structure.

The Steineggers built a family home at 10th Street and Moreland, opened a boarding house on Van Buren Street, and sent their children to St. Mary's Elementary School.

A devout Catholic, Caroline Steinegger often had the Reverend Novatus Benzing, St. Mary's German-speaking pastor, over for dinner. Alexander Steinegger, who converted to Catholicism before he died, befriended the priest and donated land at 16th Street and Van Buren for use as the area's first Catholic cemetery. The priest traded that land for a bigger parcel that is now St. Francis Cemetery near 48th Street and Oak. The Steineggers were given a large family plot there.

Hilda Steinegger grew up and became engaged to R. William Kramer, a sharp young lawyer who had moved to Arizona from Kansas for health reasons. Hoping to keep their only daughter close to home, the Steineggers gave them the property on Seventh Street as a wedding present. (Another gift, the complete 50-volume set of the Harvard Classics, a 1910 collection of the world's best nonfiction, still sits on Vic Kramer's shelves.)

After Alexander Steinegger died in 1912, his widow moved into a home next door to the Kramer house. (That home was eventually razed by Vic Kramer.)

Hilda Kramer, who had suffered four miscarriages before Victor was born, was carried by ambulance attendants on a mattress to the first St. Joseph's Hospital at Fourth Street and Polk. Vic Kramer says his mother told him she knew he was born at 6 p.m. on September 25, 1921, because she heard St. Mary's bells playing the Angelus when he arrived.

Kramer, who now sleeps in what was his parents' room, stayed in an upstairs bedroom as a boy. It is filled today with his original baby pram and boyish decor, including a button collection, photographs of dogs, a number of felt baseball card predecessors, and college pennants his uncle gave him.

Kramer says he was never bored. He and his buddies would gather in the basement, where it was cooler, drink lemonade and play cards or make model airplanes. When he was older and attended Phoenix Union, there were unlimited activities -- he was in glee club, appeared in the lavish "Masque of the Yellow Moon" annual pageants and edited the literary journal. He played tennis, Ping-Pong and baseball. He wanted to play football, but his parents refused to sign his permission slip, considering it too dangerous. Football games -- held down the street from his home at the now-demolished Montgomery Stadium -- were also a big form of community entertainment.

Young people would head to two amusement parks, Joyland, on East Van Buren, or Riverside, at Central Avenue and the river, for swimming and dancing.

Al Romo, another third-generation Phoenician who has been friends with Kramer since he was 5 years old, fondly remembers excursions to those parks. Now 78, Romo was one of the boys who used to hang out in Kramer's basement and accompanied his buddy on plenty of outings over the years. He says Kramer was always popular.

Kramer never married, but says he came close a couple of times, including once with a classmate, Margaret Taylor, who has her own spot in Phoenix history; Margaret Taylor Hance was mayor from 1975 to 1983. After dating through high school and college, Kramer says, he received a "Dear John" letter from Taylor while overseas during World War II.

Kramer's 1939 yearbook includes many gushing notations from female classmates and sweet, corny praise from others.

"Vic, lover," one inscription starts. Other classmates call him "a grand fella," "a darn swell kid'" and "one of the swellest fellas that there ever was."

In the concrete near Vic Kramer's front steps, a shadow of footprint can be seen. Barely visible, it becomes clearer when water is splashed on it. About three inches long, it was made when Kramer, at age 2, pressed his little foot into the wet concrete.

These days, he suffers from edema, a swelling of his feet. He winces when he rises from a chair and he moans when he walks a few steps. "It's terrible to get old," he says.

But his mind is sharp, his nature good and he is happy to reminisce about the history of his family, his house and his hometown.

His father died in 1974 and his mother in 1982, both at the age of 92. Kramer remodeled the home after that, adding an elevator, a downstairs spa and sauna, and a free-standing library that abuts a second garage. The basement, which still includes a fireplace and a coal chute, was redesigned to resemble a German beer house, with a slot machine, beer on tap and an ornate, mother-of-pearl-accented billiard table. (That recent acquisition came from "a red-headed gal who used to work in my dad's office" -- Lorna Lockwood, who later became the first female state Supreme Court justice in the country.)

Throughout the home, particularly in the basement, there are beer steins. Kramer has been collecting them for decades. He has no idea how many he has, but their age ranges from one that is more than 350 years old to a white plastic one that features Sparky, the Arizona State University Sun Devils' mascot.

He lends some of them each year to the Phoenix Historical Society for an Oktoberfest display, he says.

Kramer first became interested in the beer mugs when he was in World War II and found a stein in the middle of a burned-out German building. It had a little cannon on the top of it and listed members of a World War I artillery unit. When he looked into the barrel of the cannon, he could see a tiny map showing where the unit had been assigned during the war.

He wrapped the stein in his bedroll, but it broke when the trailer carrying it hit a land mine. "I gave the driver hell," Kramer says. His newfound interest in beer steins remained intact.

Kramer had been sent overseas in field artillery in 1943, after finishing his studies at the University of Santa Clara in northern California. After the Allied victory, he stayed in Germany as a town major, using his marginal knowledge of German to help rebuild the towns devastated by the war. He returned in time to be accepted to the University of Arizona law school, an entree to follow in his father's capable footsteps.

But Kramer hated law school and dreaded the prospect of joining his father's Phoenix law firm.

A 1930 Arizona history book lauds R. William Kramer's "sterling character, high attainments and professional success." His résumé included stints as assistant U.S. attorney (he kept his German-speaking mother-in-law, Caroline Steinegger, out of jail during World War I), assistant attorney general, and Phoenix city attorney (forging the deal that created South Mountain Park). He was a member of the Arizona Club and the Phoenix Country Club and served as president of the Phoenix and Arizona chambers of commerce, the local and state bar associations and other civic groups.

He was a noted orator and a friend of the Catholic Church -- he donated time and legal advice to its needs. The history book says "no member of the legal profession is more widely known throughout the state than R. William Kramer."

Proud of his father but fearful of being a "blithering idiot" by comparison at his law firm, Vic Kramer decided to drop out of law school. His father was disappointed, but "he eventually got over it," says Kramer.

Kramer worked for a food broker in San Francisco, got called back into active duty during the Korean War (but stayed stateside), then worked in real estate and insurance for John Kellogg in an office in the San Carlos Hotel.

When Kellogg died, Kramer got out of that line of work and concentrated on property management and investing.

Kramer seems to take the city's phenomenal growth in stride, expressing more amazement than horror at how far the metropolitan area extends. He says he remembers attending a father-son meeting of the Kiwanis Club in the 1930s and listening to a guest speaker -- a real estate broker who predicted the future.

"He said, 'I foresee a day when the City of Phoenix will go from the mountains on the north to the mountains on the south,'" Kramer says. "And everyone said: 'You're crazy! You're nuts!'"

Al Romo understands Vic Kramer's devotion to downtown. Romo -- grandson of Ignacio Espinosa, who in 1879 opened a store near the present-day site of America West Arena -- grew up in a Pierce Street house just around the corner from the Kramers'.

His home was much smaller and his family not as prominent as Kramer's (his father ran a meat market), but the two remained close friends over the years. Kramer was best man at Romo's wedding 43 years ago.

Romo says being so deeply rooted downtown makes it hard to leave. It was only four years ago that he moved from his home on Almeria Street to a house near Central and Maryland.

"I still can't get used to being way out here," says Romo, who retired after a long high school teaching career.

He and Kramer have mixed emotions about the changes downtown. They relish memories of the days when traffic was lighter and streets were safer. People used to stroll downtown on Saturday nights and folks had a great time dining and dancing to live music at supper clubs.

But they both approve of some of the changes, the new buildings that have taken the place of the old ones. Neither has set foot in Bank One Ballpark. And Kramer has been in America West Arena only once.

As nostalgic as Kramer is, he's not fanatical about it or about to stand in the way of progress.

The Golden West Hotel, which he still owns, has been targeted for demolition in the past, but yet it stands. Adjoining the Professional Building, it has been eyed as a prime spot for the entrance to a future hotel, he says. Advocates for the homeless have urged Kramer to keep the hotel, which rents rooms for $10 a night. It's an important low-cost housing alternative for those trying to get off the streets, they argue. But while Kramer is sympathetic to the plight of the homeless (he has an idea for a dormitory-style facility in a warehouse) and the old building has sentimental value as the birthplace of his mother, he's ready to sell it.

"It's awfully difficult to get good tenants and to try to find someone who will maintain it. If someone comes along with an offer, I'll do it," he says.

He has a similar attitude about watching parts of his alma mater, Phoenix Union, being torn down to make way for an annex to the Phoenix Civic Plaza. He was sorry to see the old structures demolished, but he's not going to lose sleep over it. And he's not worried about the new use of the Phoenix Union property bringing new traffic or other problems to his neighborhood.

"We're a block away," he says, "and I figure by the time they get that done, I won't care much."

In 1978, four years before her death, Hilda Steinegger Kramer and her son were interviewed for an oral history tape for the Phoenix History Project at the Arizona Historical Society. On the tape, she says, "I'm as old as the hills," and complains that her arthritis prevents her from playing the piano her father had bought from a Philadelphia company, sent via sailing ship around the tip of South America, then brought to Maricopa by train, then to Phoenix by horse and wagon.

The piano still sits in Kramer's front room.

Hilda Kramer reminisces about the German Club, in which early Phoenicians of German descent would get together for food, beer and music from the old country. And her son talks about his grandmother's "big project," raising money from other Catholic families to fund St. Joseph's Hospital.

"I'm certainly glad she collected that money. I think being born in a hospital is better, you know," Vic Kramer says.

"You do?" his mother asks.

"Yeah, it gives you a little class."

Kramer's aunt, Marie Steinegger, also contributed an oral history tape before her death in 1992. She turned over boxes of family records and memorabilia. Included are the original deeds granting Alexander Steinegger possession of several lots in the Phoenix townsite. On thin paper, in formal handwritten script, are recorded various Steinegger purchases. One dated August 31, 1875, gives him three lots in downtown Phoenix for $17.50. Another from 1883 shows he paid $80 for four more. His bank books, original checks and an $885 tax bill from 1901 to the county for numerous land holdings and mining claims are included in the materials.

A photo from around 1897 shows Alexander and Caroline Steinegger in fancy clothes posing in front of a handsome home at 10th Street and Moreland, a house that was torn down to make way for the freeway.

On her tape, Hilda Kramer says her "chums" liked to visit that home and sing while she played the piano, particularly if her folks were hosting the German Club. "They'd say, 'Let's go to the country.'"

Vic Kramer says when his family wanted to get out in the country, they would drive to the mountains surrounding the Valley. His dad, stuck behind a desk during the week, enjoyed climbing the mountains with his son. Hilda Kramer, not a climber, would sit in the car and wait for them.

"Now, you couldn't leave a woman by herself in a parked car," he says.

Vic Kramer doesn't get out much anymore. But every Saturday evening, he goes to Mass at St. Mary's, where he meets Al Romo and his wife. From there, they go to Durant's for dinner, a tradition they have kept for years.

While being driven in his Rolls-Royce, Kramer can see what remains of his family's marks on the town. The Golden West is still standing. The Sports City Grill, which incorporates some original brickwork, stands in the spot of his grandfather's first restaurant, a building torn down late last year. Next door, in a building his father acquired as collateral that is still owned by Kramer, sits an adult book store. His mother, he says, would have "flipped her lid" had she known what the property is being used for.

Intended to be a bookstore supporting the DeVry Institute of Technology, plans changed after the lease was signed. But because the Sports City Grill plans to expand into the space, the X-rated business won't be there for long.

His mother can rest easy. Besides, she (and her mother) would be proud of the plans Kramer has made for the family home on Seventh Street. Built using a "rockbound" method, the home and its adjacent buildings are made from red brick covered with plaster into which crushed rocks have been pressed. Kramer knows it's a well-built home that will stand for many more years.

With no heirs to inherit the house, he wants to give it to the Catholic Church for use as a refuge for retired clergy. Nationally, there is a shortage of money and facilities to house aging nuns and priests who have taught and served generations of Catholic children and families.

History books and period newspapers don't refer to Alexander Steinegger and his role in the founding and development of Phoenix. Vic Kramer, the last blood relative of the pioneer (he has two adopted cousins), believes it may be because his grandparents spoke little English. It was just more difficult for reporters or others to talk to them (and others who spoke little or no English) to chronicle their contributions.

Over the years, while the Steinegger and Kramer families have continued to contribute to the development of Phoenix, their names are not well-known. But the house, the one where Kramer has spent his whole life, has been an enduring -- and curious -- landmark to Phoenicians with downtown roots.

Once the most magnificent in a neighborhood that housed a legislator, a physician, the city's chief of police and a stockbroker, the Kramer house has held up in a deteriorating block, causing it to stand out even more these days.

Kramer's caretaker, Helen Harmon, says as she walked from her boarding house past the Kramers' home to school each day, she was intrigued by it. "I used to say, 'Some day I'm going to take care of that house.'"

Don Jackson, president of the Phoenix Union High School Alumni Association, says he remembers being impressed by the home decades ago. As a boy, he would walk by it every day while crossing Seventh Street to attend McKinley School. He always wondered who lived there.

This March, he got his answer. When a group of alumni headed up Seventh Street for a biannual litter pickup, they were greeted by a large painted sign on the porch at Kramer's house. "Welcome PUHS Alumni," it said. The group was treated to iced-down drinks, given a tour of the house and spent time visiting with Kramer and Harmon, who also attended Phoenix Union.

"They were just delightful," says Jackson of the two hosts.

Kramer says he had read about the outing in the PUHS Alumni newsletter and thought it would be a nice gesture to offer workers a rest and some refreshments. Jackson says none of the former students knew Kramer before that meeting.

"But we were familiar with the house," he says.

We use cookies to collect and analyze information on site performance and usage, and to enhance and customize content and advertisements. By clicking 'X' or continuing to use the site, you agree to allow cookies to be placed. To find out more, visit our cookies policy and our privacy policy.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >