Turret Attraction

John Geraghty wasn't born in a barn.
Not that he minds living in a studio apartment whose exterior looks exactly like one.

"It's kind of a kick," says Geraghty of the 1960s global-themed apartment complex he's called home for the last few months. After all, in the cookie-cutter world of apartment dwelling, how many renters can boast that they live in a Pennsylvania Dutch silo sandwiched between a tiki hut and a medieval English castle?

"The first time most people see this place, they can't believe it," notes the Phoenix handyman, who is helping current owners restore the decaying 35-year-old oddity to its former glory. "Myself, I'm used to it."

Geraghty can be excused if he's grown a bit blase about living in what is arguably the Valley's most unusual existing apartment complex. (Another contender, Tempe's Wigwam Village on Apache Boulevard, was razed in the early Seventies). As an insider looking out, he's not in a position to fully appreciate the fanciful fillips that transformed an otherwise unremarkable rental property on I-17 into an early Black Canyon Highway landmark.

More than three decades after the Disneyesque edifice sprang up on the southbound access road between Camelback and Indian School, the low-slung Tower of Babel--now hidden away behind a thicket of freeway landscaping--continues to be a beacon of public attention.

Unlike the old days, however, the attention in recent years has rarely been favorable.

"Tres chic!"
"AMuy bonito!"
"Quelle swank!"

It's 1963 and, in any language, the curiosity under construction on I-17 shouts: "Look at me!" Just what it is that motorists are looking at is another question altogether. At a time when America's in the thick of international mania--everyone, it seems, is obsessed with jet-set living, Julia Child, exotic espionage novels, even TV's Topo Gigio--passersby are willing to guess that the architectural polyglot is damn near anything. A theme park, a movie set, a travel agency, even a branch office of the UN?

Nein, non, nope.
Instead it's the International Villa apartments, a block-long traffic-stopper featuring 10 distinctive building styles, each anchored to a separate geographical time and place. Or something like that.

Granted, this quirky monument to residential wanderlust is one visually arresting chunk of unreal estate. In reality, however, it's nothing more than a standard cinderblock apartment complex tarted up with fantastic façades suggesting everything from a Taos pueblo to a Bourbon Street brothel. About the only themes missing from this stylistic smorgasbord are an Eskimo igloo, a Syberian gulag and a jungle tree house.

With the addition of a high, multi-angled roof, one studio is morphed into a reasonable facsimile of rural Americana. Meanwhile, a shingled mini-mansard façade and fussy wrought-iron railings convert another duplex into some bastardized version of French Provincial. And, a full two years before Taco Bell invades the Valley, exposed ceiling beams and arched doorways turn another villa into a dead ringer for a Mexican fast-food drive through.

Kitschy? Cowabunga!
But try telling that to Phoenicians at a time when the city's adventurous middle-class sophisticates are sampling cuisines of the world at the Town and Country Food Bazaar, flocking to subtitled Fellini flicks in Scottsdale and, during vacation, packing up the kids for a cruise through Disneyland's newest attraction, "It's a Small, Small World."

Today, more than three decades after the complex hung out its "For Rent" sign, the International Villa still jogs memories for longtime locals.

"We'd just gotten married, and we didn't even dream of looking for a place there," says one Valley lifer. "It looked so fancy we knew we'd never be able to afford it."

Donna Gahagans, a city employee who then lived near the property, echoes that sentiment. "At one time, right after they'd built it, the International Villa was a beautiful place. I was fascinated by it. I'd look at it every day on my way to work, and it was just gorgeous."

At that time, she probably never dreamed she'd one day be visiting the freeway charmer on official business. "What happened to that place was a real shame," says Gahagans, recently retired from her job as a slumlord investigator for the city.

Like a "come fly with me" champagne flight slipping over the smoggy horizon of the swingin' Sixties, the International Villa's early years have vanished into the murky haze of history.

According to building permits, county recorders' documents and other official records, construction on the apartment complex was begun in November 1963 by a contracting company long since defunct. Financially troubled from the git-go, the problem-plagued property went through one foreclosure even before the first tenant had moved in. During its first few years of operation, the Villa had almost as many owners as renters; in the parlance of the day, the apartment changed hands more often than Liz Taylor changed husbands.

One of those owners was Stanley Elven, among the few early principals connected to the complex whose whereabouts are known today. Beginning in 1967, Elven would buy--then resell--the complex several times over the course of its checkered life.

"Every place I'd go, I'd say 'International Villa' and it was always, 'We know where that is!'" remembers Elven. "Years ago, everyone knew the place."

Although Elven can shed little light on why the International Villa looks the way it does, he believes that the original contractor's Der Weinersnitzel-like approach to apartment building had more to do with old-fashioned commercialism than it did with making any bold statement about world unity.

"All that trim was mostly superficial--it didn't add much to the cost," explains Elven. "At least people were conscious of the place."

Listening to Elven's description of the Villa's early years--a period in which the units were reportedly filled with young marrieds, as well as upwardly mobile singles--it's easy to imagine living in a place where a monthly rent receipt was actually a passport to fun. Run out of vermouth? Go next door and borrow a bottle from that cute stewardess who lives in the French chateau. And if they're not doing anything, give a holler to that kooky couple down in the English Tudor and ask them to bring over a bowl of guacamole.

But in recent years, as the aging neighborhood slipped into decline, the door-to-door transactions transpiring at the complex were not nearly as benign. Sixties funsters who'd enjoyed living in a goofy crossroads-of-the-world eventually gave way to hookers, drug dealers and hustlers simply looking for a cheap place to conduct business. Its once-festive façades now painted an industrial gray, the complex looked less like a celebration of cultural diversity than a plunge into a Third World thieves' market.

International Villa? Try Villa of the Damned: Last spring, the one-time multicultural mecca was named Phoenix's fourth-worst apartment complex in an Arizona Republic survey of apartment-related city code and health violations.

"The place was scary," recalls one visitor to the complex during its darkest days. "If you had any reason to go in there, you waited outside the door. What was happening inside, well, it was bad--you didn't want to know. I remember seeing someone laying on the floor covered with cockroaches. No one should live that way."

Burt Friedman, since May one of the property's new owners, didn't think so either.

"This place was an eyesore, the slum of the area for many years," says Friedman, between puffs on his omnipresent cigar. "It wasn't just a unit here or a unit there that had a couple prostitutes or places to buy your drugs; they'd taken the entire place over."

A retired corporate real-estate scout from Chicago, Friedman's first official act as landlord was to clean house--both literally and figuratively. His second act, after evicting everyone in preparation for a long overdue remodeling project, was to modestly rechristen the apartments Burton Place, after Friedman's first name. (By this point, the northernmost castle unit had been purchased by another owner; it's now doing business as The Yorkshire.)

"To continue calling it International Villa would be like saying, 'I have a cancer and I'm the new owner of the cancer,'" Friedman says with a laugh.

While doing exploratory surgery prior to remodeling, Friedman marveled that his ravaged patient had managed to survive as long as it had. Previous incarnations as a flophouse, an unsuccessful drug-rehab center and, most recently, a crack house had definitely taken their toll. Windows were broken, walls were perforated, plumbing was clogged with drug paraphernalia and, in several units throughout the complex, tenants had bored large holes into the concrete foundation of closet floors.

"It took us a while to figure out what that was about," says Friedman, who finally surmised that the holes had housed floor safes where dealers stashed drugs and cash.

While Friedman mans the office, Russian-born partner Zina Brodovsky offers a tour of the work in progress. Her accent lending a "We Are the World" note to the international proceedings, Brodovsky shouts to be heard over the roar of nearby freeway traffic.

"We're not all the way there yet, so you have to use your imagination," she says as she proudly points out amenities--a freshly poured sidewalk, landscaping, a renovated laundry room, and, courtesy of fines levied against the previous owner, a repaved parking lot--which she hopes will revitalize the onetime landmark.

Midway through the tour, Brodovsky stops in for a progress report from her husband, Victor Kharchilava. A husky Russian emigre, he is wrestling with a tiling job in the tiki hut when his wife approaches. The pair have an animated conversation in their native tongue, then step outside to admire a recently installed security fence surrounding the property.

"This will help keep people from coming and going all the time," she explains. "Drug traffic we will not tolerate. We're very civic-minded."

But at least one observer has her doubts. As head of a neighborhood watchdog group trying to clean up crime in the area, Debbie Whitney has monitored the apartments' downward spiral for the past six years. "As far as I can tell, it's the same thing happening all over again, only with different owners," claims Whitney, who says she recently tracked several prostitutes to the apartments.

Whitney says that if Friedman and Brodovsky were really serious about turning the complex around, they'd agree to run routine background checks on potential renters. If they had, says Whitney, they might have weeded out renters like the intoxicated pit-bull trainer and the freaked-out female resident running rampant through the neighborhood with whom Whitney had run-ins during the past several months. Says Whitney, "It's very frustrating."

Brodovsky says both tenants were evicted. And, she adds, even though the complex doesn't run professional background checks, all potential renters must prove they are employed.

Still, Friedman and Brodovsky have only owned the place for half a year; the future of Burton Place is anyone's guess.

Tenant John Geraghty, meanwhile, couldn't be happier as he flips burgers on a weather-beaten grill outside his faux barn. A few doors down, a trio of barefoot preschoolers seemingly ape him as they "cook" dirt on a plastic stove outside the open door to their apartment.

Marveling over the recent transformation the little world of Burton Place has undergone, Geraghty smiles.

"Just look at this," he tells a visitor. "Kids, barbecues--who'd have ever thought this would turn into a family place?"

Contact Dewey Webb at his online address: dwebb@newtimes.com

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