Under the Sun: Can This Link to Phoenix's Past Be Preserved?

The Norton House is one of very few homes left from the West Capital Addition, a 19th-century subdivision of mansions.EXPAND
The Norton House is one of very few homes left from the West Capital Addition, a 19th-century subdivision of mansions.
Robrt L. Pela
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William Link admitted, over breakfast at a Grand Avenue diner, that he had a box at home full of hardware he’d yanked out of the W. R. Norton House back when he owned it. “I took all the doorknobs and hinges,” he said. “If the new owners truly restore the interior, and it’s period correct, I’ll give them the hardware. Then they can reinstall it.”

Lately, Link had high hopes for the future of the beleaguered mansion at 22nd Avenue and Washington Street. One of very few homes left from the West Capital Addition, a 19th-century subdivision of similarly stately structures, Norton House has been a mess for decades. Its brick and wood construction is charred with black soot from a fire; its windows are busted out; its gingerbread had long ago rotted away or been stolen.

Link has long been the house’s steward. “I’m encouraged that Norton just sold for $160,000,” he said, then moved a sausage patty onto a side plate. “I meant to order bacon.”

The longtime eyesore was built in 1897 by renowned architect William R. Norton, a transplanted Bostonian who intended to live in the Victorian mansion in what was then the better part of town. But Norton, who came to Phoenix to recover from pneumonia, wound up instead founding a tuberculosis camp he named Sunnyslope. He relocated to the camp, after which his former home began its long, downward slide.

Link pawed through a box of Norton House documents on the vinyl seat beside him. “Here’s the handwritten deed from April 1897,” he said. “I’ve got a picture in here somewhere of the original porch, before some smart guy closed it all up.”

He offered a photograph of the house taken in 1940. “Norton was an apartment house during the post-war housing shortage,” he said. “The uncle of the man who owned it then was a terrible drunk. He lived up the street, and he’s the one who set Norton House on fire. After that, it was never the same.”

Link, who restores vintage automobiles for a living, began researching Norton House soon after he first spotted its crumbling façade. In 2001, he got word that the current owner planned to bulldoze the structure. “To maintain the insurance, he was letting homeless people live in it,” Link said. “I bought it for $98,000 to keep it from getting demolished.”

On the day he took possession of the house, Link discovered it filled with hundreds of empty suitcases, its rooms waist-deep in old clothing. “I suspect what the tenants were doing was stealing luggage from the airport, taking all the good stuff out and selling it.” He held up a photograph of stacked suitcases and piles of sweaters and trousers. “I cleared it all out, after which I itched for a week.”

Everyone agreed with Link that Norton House should be saved, but no one knew how. “I had to pay cash for it, because it was such a wreck that no bank would finance it. I couldn’t afford to pay for restoration myself. The Historic Preservation office was a dead end.”

Soon, the city came calling, threatening to demolish the eyesore at Link’s expense if he didn’t get busy restoring it.

In 2005, Link secured a $100,000 matching funds grant that would allow Norton’s new owners to restore it more economically. He then sold it to a preservationist from L.A. (Among the buyer’s contingencies was a demand that a Palm Sunday crucifix thumbtacked to the door be left behind.) When Norton later went into foreclosure, it was scooped up by a local land baron who allowed the house to sit vacant for five years. Investors sold the house to the current owners, a married couple who appear reluctant to talk to the media about their purchase.

Link has watched Norton’s ownership change, while its crumpled, burnt façade remains unchanged. “I’ve spoken to the new owners, and they seem committed,” he said. He hoped they’d restore the house’s rounded porch and remove the metal gridding that’s there now.

“They’ve put a new roof on, and they’ve talked about restoring the interior,” Link said. “I hope they do. The house would look so ridiculous with granite countertops and subway tile.”

Link said the highway department’s future plans include widening Interstate 17, which would mean demolishing or relocating Norton House. “If they really plan to knock it down this time, they’d better get busy buying it from the new owners. Otherwise they’ll be tearing down a beautiful historic home that’s been completely restored. Good luck with that.”

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