RSS Feed
  1. Downtown Feast Provides Fitting Tribute for Lost Icon of Arcology

    April 15, 2013 by Connor Descheemaker

    Looking southward from Matthew Salenger's "Desert Islands" installation during Feast on the Street. (Connor Descheemaker/DD)

    Looking southward from Matthew Salenger’s “Desert Islands” installation during Feast on the Street. (Connor Descheemaker/DD)

    This past Tuesday, Arizona and the world lost one of its greatest and most unique creatives in Paolo Soleri.

    Over his 93 years of life, Soleri was hailed as many things. A visionary, a poet, a philosopher, an architect, a hippie, an idealist, a communist, a control-freak.

    Dwelling for many decades of his life in the Arizona desert, Soleri was given the perfect canvas on which to paint his multi-faceted urban ideal.

    Taken together, his major projects Arcosanti and Cosanti served as the unreachable societal ideal for communing in harmony with both nature and urbanity.

    His drawings and sketches took on an equally monumental scale. The drawings still able to be seen took up entire scrolls dozens of feet long, spanning entire walls when hung end to end.

    But perhaps most notably, none of Soleri’s work ever became mechanical. Each stroke of the pen was done with artistic flourish and vivid color, reflecting both creative unrest and a desire to express the fullness of nature in his work.

    Soleri’s work fell under the banner of organic architecture, and he first came to Arizona after college in Italy to learn from its most famous practitioner: Frank Lloyd Wright.

    After studying at Wright’s famed Taliesin West, rather than become another acolyte, Soleri rebelled.

    He carried out a few commissions, and then began speaking out almost immediately against the very principles upon which his former teacher Wright built his reputation.

    Rather than spreading out and making the car the center of everyday activity, Soleri craved hyper-urbanism, but not in the typical sense. Instead, he founded the philosophy of arcology, the intersection (even linguistically) of architecture and ecology.

    Soleri’s hyper-dense structures would form a new vision of the city in direct contrast to Wright’s famed Broadacre City, which ended up forming the basis of American suburban growth in the late 20th century.

    All based around the apse (a quarter-sphere structure), Soleri’s Mesa City concept would house tens of thousands of residents, but all over an incredibly small footprint. Sweeping, interconnected architectural forms would spring out of the ground and unite residence and business seamlessly.

    Through this unique design, and especially its footprint, all residents would co-exist in an extremely egalitarian form, with everyone having equal access to nature. All parts of the city faced outward, and were each near to the edge of the city and therefore in constant interaction with the surrounding environment.

    The forms which Soleri’s buildings and sketches took are truly unmatched in any era of architecture or design.

    Above all, he desired for man to live in community, both with one another, and with the nature on which they so heavily relied.

    Iconic, and wholly built to fit the Arizona desert in which they were built, Soleri’s Cosanti and Arcosanti stand unparalleled, now tributes to the natural, holistic vision of their creator.

    (Connor Descheemaker/DD)

    (Connor Descheemaker/DD)

    This past Saturday represented downtown Phoenix’s most grandiose attempt ever to engage community and environment.

    Roosevelt Row CDC
    , in partnership with ASU Art Museum and School of Sustainability, hosted its first (hopefully) annual Feast on the Street.

    The event centered around a massive, half-mile-long dining table, lined with 2000 chairs taking up First Street in downtown Phoenix, from ASU Downtown’s Taylor Place residence hall to Margaret T. Hance Park. And spaced evenly along the table were information cards and examples of plants native to the area.

    The dining table was flanked on both sides by over a dozen food trucks, a beer garden, a farmers’ market, bucket plants, seed bags, “bike bouquets”, gardening demonstrations, and numerous other local food purveyors and advocates.

    While Phoenix has long been perceived as a place which shuns density of any kind, the dream of those organizing the event and many of its participants is to finally re-adopt the walk, bike, and train, and rebuild the city’s urban core around these principles.

    Historically though, Phoenix was a tight, accessible city with shaded, wide sidewalks, and a popular streetcar line to boot.

    The area directly surrounding the Feast would not appear to many as the epicenter of an urban revival, but those pursing with a fine-tooth comb would find many glimpses of success in the dozens of independent businesses which have cropped up around First Street in the area known as Roosevelt Row.

    Food, in the case of this event, was used as the catalyst for localism and community, and education about the flora and fauna of the Arizona desert to produce harmony between the modern, built world, and the natural one which existed before and will continue to exist if we embrace it.

    And it was these ideals to which Paolo Soleri so desperately clung throughout his near-century of service to the practice of arcology.

    With the Feast’s open embrace of locality and the natural environment the city of Phoenix, it would seem, is finally taking its first tentative, temporary steps toward the embrace of ecology in urban form, dreamt up so long ago by Soleri.

    One could even faintly trace the Feast’s lineage to the numerous potlucks and community dinners held amongst students, apprentices, employees, and visitors to Cosanti and Arcosanti over their many decades of existence.

    A fitting “fine” to the Italian expatriate’s time in the Sonoran Desert.

  2. The Newton Heralds New Era for Historic Phoenix Restaurant

    March 29, 2013 by Connor Descheemaker

    Thursday morning, over 100 of Central Phoenix’s up-and-comers and power players gathered in the parking lot of a splayed-open icon on Camelback Road, eager for the unveiling of the latest direction of one of the city’s most memorable spaces.

    For 55 years, the legendary Beef Eaters served as a gathering place for all occasions: from business deals to bar mitzvahs, birthdays to first dates. Redeveloper Venue Projects’ latest plans for the space aim to take the best of the restaurant’s past and translate it into a new, multi-use vision to anchor the northern portion of the light rail corridor.

    The preserved and renovated space will house a second Changing Hands Bookstore, a new concept from the team behind Beckett’s Table, and a new co-working and event space The Lively Hood.

    The Newton has arrived.

    The interior of the former Beef Eaters. "Peeling away the layers of an onion." (Photo courtesy of Gabriel Radley)

    The interior of the former Beef Eaters. “Peeling away the layers of an onion.” (Photo courtesy of Gabriel Radley)

    At the event, the excitement surrounding the announcements to come was palpable, with all attendees realizing the inherent value of the project, building, and the people involved in the revitalization.

    Early arrivals could stroll to the former restaurant’s wide-open entry and peer at the gathered leather booths, what remained of the tiled bathroom, and the ever-present wood furnishings and railings for which the space was known.

    Stationed at the front of the gathering audience were four massive, space-age leather chairs, pulled from the Beef Eaters interior; a wooden coat of arms adorned the podium.

    For preservationists, these signs of the past served as a grand omen for what is to come.

    Slightly after 10am, master of ceremonies and co-principal of Venue Projects Lorenzo Perez addressed the buzzing masses, speaking excitedly of the project’s construction as the culmination of three years of work. It was the “project that never went away.”

    But a year-and-a-half after the initial deal between Venue Projects and one of its owner-tenants fell through, all the stars had finally aligned for what is likely to be one of Phoenix’s most anticipated and most ambitious adaptive-reuse projects ever.

    Gathered to speak alongside Perez were co-principal of Venue Projects Jon Kitchell, Shannon Scutari of the Sustainable Communities Collaborative, Kimber Lanning of Local First Arizona and the nearby Stinkweeds record shop, and Councilman Tom Simplot of District Four, which represents the area around the project.

    Perez officially christened the space’s new name, The Newton, in honor of Beef Eaters founder and revered Phoenician Jay Newton.

    Of the former restaurant’s Valley connection, Venue Projects co-principal Jon Kitchell said “[We] can’t help but feel inspired by his legacy…Every time we tell people about this place, we hear a story.”

    While the building sat vacant, its interior undisturbed since the restaurant’s closure in 2006, Councilman Simplot noted that he had the “same concern that we would lose this iconic building that anchored our neighborhood.”

    When speaking of her own arrival along Camelback Road in 2005, Kimber Lanning emphasized “People said I was crazy.”

    But in the words of Simplot, “[This project is] the realization of that new energy to Camelback Road.”

    The space will house a bookstore and wine bar, restaurants, and co-working and event space, promising the diverse array of traffic for which Beef Eaters was known will continue for years to come.

    The project represents a unique partnership between Venue Projects and its two co-owner-tenants, Changing Hands and Beckett’s Table, and new tenant The Lively Hood.

    “It’s about going in with others,” said Shannon Scutari of the venture.

    “We [Phoenix] will not thrive without creating lots and lots and lots of places…Beautiful weather doesn’t make us interesting.”

    Scutari represented the Sustainable Communities Collaborative, a $20 million nonprofit partnership between over 20 government agencies, nonprofits, for-profit businesses, and educational institutions to fund transit-oriented development in the three cities along the Valley Metro light rail line.

    “[They were] pivotal at a time when [we were asking] ‘How are we going to pay for [the project]?” said Lorenzo Perez of the Collaborative’s co-financing of the project.

    Pairing adaptive-reuse and transit-oriented development, The Newton represents the power of the Valley’s light rail line, and the potential for creative business in Central Phoenix.

  3. Phoenix 2013: Reeling, But Bearing Down for What’s Next

    January 14, 2013 by Connor Descheemaker

    (Photo courtesy of Gabriel Radley

    To begin a new year in Phoenix is often to pick through the waste of the past, and salvage what you can.

    The past year of preservation has been one of endless fights. To be entrenched in Phoenix’s history, especially as it relates to its properties, is to be ready for anything, to be hyper-aware of potential courses of action, and be prepared to engage in a defense of every act you take.

    Three tremendous tasks faced the Phoenix preservation community this year, leading to city council meetings, petitions, articles, and even international attention.

    Coming first at the end of April was the saga of Circle K. First emerging at a Garfield Organization meeting, Circle K announced a partnership with the successful local development firm Vintage Partners to build a 16-pump station across the street from its current location on the northeast corner of Seventh and Roosevelt streets.

    In the process, Circle K planned to demolish a decades-old warehouse on the southeast corner of the street to make way for its new, massive structure.

    According to the developer, the building (which most recently served as a tire and service shop) was beyond being saved, and held no architectural significance. The community was simply made to accept that the structure was a lost cause.

    Rather than fighting for the integrity of the building, people were made to argue on the best way forward for the development, and either stop the new gas station entirely or ensure that it would serve the community in the best way possible.

    Over time, as Circle K and the developer moved through the permitting process, community opposition to the development increased and public meetings became ever-more-full.

    Mounting pressure on Circle K, and increasingly fierce rhetoric between the two parties led ultimately to a last-minute withdrawal of their liquor license application, the day it was to go before the Phoenix City Council.

    As of this writing, all plans for Circle K’s development have been cancelled, and the community is left with another vacant building, full of potential.

    Talk among the community has been of possibility, with many eagerly looking at a vital corner along an active thoroughfare going straight to the heart of the city.

    Preservationists have begun to talk of an assessment being done on the former tire shop to see whether it can be salvaged and transformed to a new use, or whether a new structure must be put up in its place.

    Things previously thought impossible are now viable options for downtown development.

    Just a few months after the Circle K proposal hit the community, one of famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s most remarkable structures became threatened by a lot-split permit from the property’s newest owners.

    The David and Gladys Wright House
    , as thousands around the world now know, was built by Wright for his son and his wife in a style that was comparable to only one other design in the internationally-renowned architect’s oeuvre, the Guggenheim in New York.

    Again, the fight proceeded through all levels of government and community, with tens of thousands around the world signing a petition to preserve the property, and local efforts to get the site declared a landmark, which would prevent the property from being demolished for three years.

    Months of failed offers to buy the property and preserve it alongside conflicting press statements from the ill-fated developers created a universally chaotic situation, leaving onlookers wondering at what the truth of the situation really was.

    Then finally, just before Christmas, a mysterious buyer emerged, closing on the house, creating a “Christmas miracle” of sorts for the Phoenix preservation community.

    This buyer, though still anonymous, plans to preserve the house through a nonprofit foundation which would make the house a permanent fixture in the city, a beacon of hope to a beleaguered city known best for its propensity for destruction.

    (Photo courtesy of Gabriel Radley

    But the celebration of the holidays was short-lived for many, as the Phoenix Suns followed through on their months-long promise the day after Christmas, tearing down all but the façade of the nearly century-old St. James Hotel.

    The teardown was the culmination of months of threats to the once-promising historic block, almost entirely intact at the beginning of the year and marked most prominently by an Ed Varney-designed warehouse (still standing), and the Madison (fully demolished) and St. James (partially standing) hotels.

    And the vision for the property? A VIP parking lot for Suns season ticket holders.

    A magnificent present for the community, indeed.

    Although the community prevailed in the cases of Circle K and the Wright house, another gaping hole was created in downtown Phoenix thanks to the Phoenix Suns.

    With preservation currently relegated to a reactive role in local politics, advocates have been wondering aloud at how to get a more powerful seat at the table with regard to lobbying and education.

    Currently, statewide preservation is championed by the Arizona Preservation Foundation. Neighborhoods are represented by their respective associations, and cumulatively by the Phoenix Historic Neighborhoods Coalition. Cities like Mesa and Tempe each have their own preservation foundations, protecting such landmarks as the “diving lady” sign in Mesa, and the Eisendrath House in Tempe.

    But Phoenix proper has no such group, and a few determined souls are aiming to change that, with rumors abounding of the formation of a Phoenix nonprofit dedicated to preservation.

    Though the vision and effects of such a group remain to be seen, to have another group working toward a more historically-conscious future holds nothing if not promise for the city.

    After a turbulent 2012, Phoenix preservationists no doubt are aiming for a more stable, proactive 2013.

    (Photo courtesy of Gabriel Radley)

  4. With neighboring Madison gone, Hotel St. James faces its final days whole

    December 12, 2012 by Connor Descheemaker

    A few months after its sister similarly lost its right to a future, the St. James Hotel is facing its own demise.

    An excavator and cherry-picker loom atop the former foundation of the Madison Hotel. (Connor Descheemaker/DD)

    The dotted lines have been cut into the building, just behind its entry section—its carcass picked apart and exposed to the elements to ensure just the right pieces are preserved, and the “wrong” pieces taken apart.

    Monday, the first workers were spotted on the site, on its second floor, removing bricks well over 80 years old from their long-nested locales. Simultaneously, an excavator and a cherry-picker were brought to rest on the grave of the neighboring Madison Hotel, leering at the St. James’ withering form.

    In their initial press releases, both the City of Phoenix and the Phoenix Suns promised the preservation of the front façade of the St. James Hotel, which was deemed by each to be the only part of the neighboring hotels that was “architecturally significant”.

    But in October, when the Madison came down, the press seemed to neglect the fact that although only the St. James’ front face was promised a savior, its entire skeleton remained following two days of demolition and cleanup.

    The last rows of bricks from the Madison Hotel, slowly being peeled away. (Connor Descheemaker/DD)

    Though the Suns (the property’s owners) seem to be in a major hurry to tear down the structures, with the basketball season already begun it seems odd that the holders are so eager to see this through to its conclusion.

    According to neighboring property owner and preservation advocate Michael Levine, it was only a matter of time before the variables of cost, demolition team availability and stabilizing architect lined up to take down the St. James.

    Even more disheartening, word has emerged that city officials in 2010 changed an ordinance forbidding the demolition of a property such as the Madison or St. James within a block that was at least 67% intact—a qualification which this particular block easily met prior to the demolition of the two hotels.

    In the world of preservation, buildings are revered for the presence of tremendous design flair and the names associated with their history, whether that is the building’s architect or a famous tenant.

    The endgame of this is a city built by the winners; just as history is written by the winners, so too is the architectural record. But just the same, this leads to a city with only one set of voices.

    The Madison and St. James hotels never hosted celebrities. Neither was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. And neither was a keystone of any particular era of the downtown Phoenix community.

    But the stories within their walls still deserve a place.

    The more famed Luhrs Building and Jefferson Hotel peek through the negative space of the St. James’ former rooftop garden. (Connor Descheemaker/DD)

    Even dating back to their respective grand openings, the Madison and St. James were home to transients of many sorts: travelers, salesmen and new arrivals to the city, as well as prostitutes, addicts and the destitute.

    Though none of those “types” obviously shape the agenda of a city, especially one as ever-evolving as Phoenix, they remain a presence—a reminder of the reality of life in a diverse community.

    Largely arriving via train, the customers of the hotels weren’t looking for the largest or most picturesque accommodations. They were merely seeking a place to lay their heads.

    As downtown transitions into its next grandiose phase of development, the power of this simple desire is one that cannot be lost. These people deserve to be remembered. Their voices and hopes and dreams and even failures hold just as much weight as those of the Goldwaters, Hensleys and O’Connors.

    Neither of the hotels rose to prominence concurrent with their neighbors at the Luhrs and Jefferson hotels. Neither experienced a boom with the arrival of the Phoenix Suns in downtown.

    But till the end of the 20th century, the hotels’ tenants lingered in the periphery of the thousands who scrambled in and out of our city’s core for the glory of sport.

    What once stood as the last threads of connection to Phoenix’s laborers and hard-luck passersby now will stand as a brick-clad ornament for the VIPs of the city’s longest-running athletic tenant.

    Surveying the scene of the demolition on Tuesday, workers had begun to remove bricks from the back edge of the building’s entryway, marking the point of no return. Long-boarded windows were exposed and smashed to show the excavator where to begin its rending.

    The St. James Hotel’s emaciated and faded form is now most indicative of the many who wandered its halls.

    Though forgotten and swept aside, their strong bones and bricks held strong to the march of time.

    (Connor Descheemaker/DD)

  5. DeSoto Building Begins Long Journey of Renewal

    November 30, 2012 by Connor Descheemaker

    At the corner of Central and Roosevelt streets just north of the downtown Phoenix core, sits a sizable old warehouse. The vague remnants of a sign signaling “Antiques” appear on its southern wall. With a collapsing roof, plain brown paint job, and patches of its skeleton exposed to the elements, to the untrained eye the DeSoto Building’s beauty escapes many.

    Facing Central Avenue, the DeSoto Building’s former grand entry (Connor Descheemaker/DD)

    Earlier in 2012, after roughly a decade of dormancy, a banner appeared briefly on the building’s West façade: Motley Design Group.

    The prominent local architecture and preservation firm’s involvement in the building’s preservation brought cheers from across the community. And almost immediately, speculation began as to what form the structure would take in its next incarnation.

    Earlier this year, I sat down with Motley principal architect and co-founder Robert Graham, who told me all about the streetside wonder’s past, present, and plans for its future.

    Constructed in 1928, the building was exactly its namesake: a DeSoto car dealership, specifically C.P. Stephens DeSoto Six Motor Cars. With massive street-facing windows and a sizable indoor showroom, the shop was a distinct part of Central Avenue’s emerging car culture, joining numerous other dealerships and repair shops between Van Buren and McDowell.

    Through about 1955, the building served as a car dealership, with business owner Stephens eventually adding Plymouth cars to his offerings.

    Over time, with the decline of the Central Corridor, the building was adapted into other uses, leading to the division of its interior, the covering of its street-facing windows and the addition of garage doors on its northern and western sides.

    The rapidly-eroding final sign of the DeSoto Building’s last life. (Connor Descheemaker/DD)

    More recently, the building was an antique shop, with pioneers of the Phoenix arts community like Beatrice Moore recalling its assorted wares.

    The front façade peels. The southern part of the roof is partially collapsed. The interior is gutted and what remains of its former offices is fading fast. But its great hope remains.

    Its location could not be more central, beckoning visitors from Central into the ever-vibrant Roosevelt Row arts district, celebrating the strength and character of the past while integrating into the blooming present.

    Now, the building is owned by a man who made his living in trucking, and has begun investing in real estate.

    After wintering in Phoenix for some time, and maintaining a private, historic garage along a funky stretch of Grand Avenue, this man decided to invest in something more permanent, “want[ing] to get more involved,” in the words of Graham.

    The historic structure’s crumbling facade. (Connor Descheemaker/DD)

    And so he hired Graham and his firm, Motley, to rehab the facility as a sort of “hobby project”.

    According to Graham, he wants to save the interior as much as possible, and to that end, the trusses inside the structure have held up remarkably well.

    Now, with plans and renderings beginning to appear, Graham says there are three options for the space:

    1. Find photos and rebuild the structure just as it was.
    2. Construct a sort of “placeholder” design, adding certain modern features.
    3. Remodel in a totally new light, while still maintaining compatibility and the historic integrity of the building.

    In analyzing what to do next, Graham asked himself, “What are the essential elements of the building?”

    For a veteran of preservation and architecture, character is the foremost concern.

    Currently, the interior of the building is being stripped of its non-essential parts and any remaining detritus, with plans being shown to the Evans-Churchill Community Association and the City of Phoenix Historic Preservation Commission as they emerge. Even temporary uses for the external walls have been discussed as the building undergoes its transformation.

    For the time being, the structure remains dark, but through propinquity, it has already been claimed for art.

    An anonymous wheatpaste, perchance left to care for the building. (Connor Descheemaker/DD)