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September, 2012

  1. Circle K and the True “Feel” of a Neighborhood

    September 28, 2012 by Connor Descheemaker

    In the wake of today’s potentially historic, but as-yet-inconclusive zoning hearing on the proposed Circle K at Seventh and Roosevelt streets, I have been ruminating on the character of our downtown’s neighborhoods.

    At Vanishing Phoenix, I have been covering this story since April, right after the developers’ first meeting with the Garfield Organization. I have watched as the tone of the conversation has changed, and the reasons for dispute have shifted.

    Over that time, Circle K’s representatives have attended numerous meetings with city officials, community members and neighborhood associations, discussing the various groups’ concerns, and moving toward a workable solution.

    In response, Circle K made numerous design concessions, adding architectural flair, shade trees and wider sidewalks, and promising space for a mural in the alley to be completed by a local artist from the Garfield neighborhood.

    Through the many talks, local residents, business owners, artists and students have been confronted with the question of what sort of business is best for their neighborhood, and how to foster the desired culture.

    And with the continued redevelopment of downtown dating back to the 1970s, it is a question that will continue to be asked.

    A development along Palm Lane, just across from an historic former single-family home (Connor Descheemaker/DD)

    Riding my bicycle along Palm Lane between Seventh and Third streets on a recent night, I was slapped in the face with how commercial development can and will encroach upon the character of historic neighborhoods.

    While such development is not necessarily a bad thing, one can’t help but feel unsteady when going through the lush, palm-lined streets of the Alvarado neighborhood, and suddenly coming upon a massive parking lot, or a house whose front yard has been gutted to make way for an entrance and another parking area, replete with flood lights.

    From this unexpected office and commercial strip, one continues on Palm Lane to find an array of well-preserved 1940s and ‘50s-era apartment and office complexes, bringing a traveler right back to the historic norm of the rest of the surrounding area.

    Though the new commercial developments along this street are architecturally integrated into the neighborhood, when surrounded by the Coronado and Alvarado historic districts, the sites feel out of place.

    Just a few blocks northward though, the Ashland Place historic district sits almost entirely undisturbed.

    A single-family dwelling sits below the ambient light on Vernon Street in the Ashland Place district. (Connor Descheemaker/DD)

    Lined with similarly thick trees and entire streets of architecturally-unique homes, the district sits quietly just off Central Avenue, astride two major arterial roads at its East and West ends.

    Every single house along Vernon Street is original, mixing a fair array of styles to create one of Central Phoenix’s most intriguing neighborhoods.

    With no formal entryway, the glow of the streetlights beckon only the most curious and patient passersby to view the quaint, perfectly-preserved district.

    These two contrasting examples illustrate the ways that neighborhoods can be brought through to the present: Will they deal with infill and new development, or will they stick exclusively to the familiar feel of the past?

    As Evans-Churchill and Garfield scramble to determine their reactions to the potential arrival of Circle K, they too must think about how to maintain the distinct feel of their areas. And with each neighborhood containing so much vacant space, new development is at the very least a necessary evil.

    How each neighborhood will react remains to be seen, but each must certainly make a plan for their path forward, so as not to lose what makes each unique.

    Blogger’s Note: For a full report on the Circle K hearing, head here for all the gory details. To hear a community member’s perspective on the issue, take a look at Will Novak’s opinion piece here.

  2. Hope for the Knipe House Remains

    September 21, 2012 by Connor Descheemaker

    The Leighton G. Knipe House has sat vacant behind monOrchid for decades. Over that time, it has alternately been regarded as a home for transients, urban blight, and a site for potentially incredible reuse, all due to its sheer size and age.

    Despite being one of the oldest houses in the state (predating statehood by three years), the Knipe House was left to the elements till just this year, when the City of Phoenix enlisted local preservation and architecture firm Motley Design Group to ensure the historic structure lived on.

    The Knipe House stands currently in the midst of an intensive preservation process (Connor Descheemaker/DD)

    The house’s namesake, Leighton G. Knipe, was a highly-regarded architect and structural engineer based in Phoenix, who also completed notable projects in both Texas and California.

    According to a report compiled by Robert Graham in 2006, the house was not even originally built for Knipe himself.

    His parents, the Reverend and Mrs. Samuel Worman Knipe, chose their son Leighton to design their new house, where they would live from 1909 till their deaths in 1913. From that point, both Leighton and his sister, Bertha, lived in the home “on and off” through the beginning of 1932.

    During this time, Leighton continued to gain acclaim for his work, designing the West and Krause Halls (both now demolished) for Arizona State University, along with co-designing the still-standing Industrial Arts/Anthropology Building with California architect Norman Marsh.

    However, two particular projects put Knipe forever into the development history of Phoenix.

    First, Knipe helped Paul Litchfield, founder of Litchfield Park, design his company town along with its famed Wigwam Resort.

    More famously though, Knipe was indirectly responsible for one of the most-referenced movies in American history: Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Knipe was the engineer for the historic Jefferson Hotel (now the Barrister Building), where Janet Leigh and John Gavin held their secret lunchtime rendezvous, kickstarting the film’s entire plot.

    Following the Knipes’ exit, the home went through a series of owners before settling with JF Powell, who occupied the home (sometimes accompanied by another tenant) from 1945 to 1960.

    During the era of Powell, the home underwent what was likely a major remodel, which included an addition to the second floor.

    The Knipe House then fell into less certain ownership (and conditions).

    The 1960s brought a decline in the downtown area, and subsequently the massive home was divided up piecemeal to become tenant housing, for which it was used at least through the 1980s.

    In 2003, with the Roosevelt Row arts district and the rest of downtown seeing its first signs of major revival, Ro3, LLC was formed, aiming to redevelop a large plot of land stretching from Roosevelt to Moreland, and Second to Third streets.

    The LLC was a conceived and proposed by a partnership of two downtown development heavyweights: Wayne Rainey of monOrchid and the former Holgas, and Reid Butler of Butler Housing Company.

    The massive project came with the first wave of pre-recession money, and would cover several (still) vacant lots along with renovating three historic properties.

    The project’s plans included 54 units of affordable artist-focused rental housing, 12 units of owner-focused condos and townhouses, an art gallery operated by Bentley Gallery, a restaurant/cooking school operated by Christopher Gross of Christopher’s & Crush Lounge, a market by Derrick and Gina Suarez of the former Paisley Violin, and a massive urban court/park space.

    However, following unclear circumstances, the project fell through and was never developed.

    In 2010, the Knipe House’s life flashed before our very eyes with a property fire, allegedly started by either a serial arsonist or transients living in the home’s shell, according to the Phoenix New Times.

    It took two years, but earlier this year, the insurance settlement for the house finally arrived, allowing the City of Phoenix (the property’s current owners) to fund its stabilization.

    The project became one in an ever-expanding series completed by Motley Design Group, who is taking the house apart brick by brick, and putting it back together again to give the roof structural integrity and make it more appealing to future developers.

    Currently, the Knipe House is deep in the throes of the preservation process, so only time will tell what its ultimate fate will be.

    The Knipe House's future faded just a few years ago after a fire took out most of the building's interior and roof. (Connor Descheemaker/DD)

    The most recent development activity came in 2011, when an internal E-mail provided by the Historic Preservation Commission notes that a private man contacted the City, interested in buying the property, though no follow-up was ever reported.

    For now, hope rests in the restoration process being performed by Motley, and the real estate recovery continuing slowly but surely throughout the city.

  3. Forgotten Bowling Alley Glows Once More

    September 14, 2012 by Connor Descheemaker

    Walking along the east side of Central Avenue, more astute observers have long noticed the unusual glass block tiles amid the sidewalk, peeking through at those above.

    For most, it was merely an interesting aesthetic touch, something to admire in passing, thinking it solely a little bit of flair provided by the City of Phoenix on the usually-mundane sidewalk. But for those in the know, it was something representing memory—a memory of our city’s vibrant past.

    Just below the path, in a closed-off basement the Gold Spot Bowling Alley’s long-forgotten shell sat, awaiting its fate as the city rapidly evolved above it.

    The current vault lights, sitting vacant before being lit. (Connor Descheemaker/DD)

    In 1927, the Nielsen Radio and Sporting Goods Company arrived at the southeast corner of Central Avenue and Pierce Street, offering the latest luxurious radio receivers alongside more affordable sporting goods. Simultaneously, the structure held one of the Valley’s very first radio stations, first known as KFCB (“Kind Friends Come Back”), and later KOY.

    In those days, radio shops served as more than just locales for purchase. Due to the massive expense involved in owning a radio at the time, these stores were equally important for community gatherings, as shop owners hosted events around important radio broadcasts.

    Though the radio station vacated the premises in 1937, the location continued to have a social presence, becoming home to the site of much downtown lore: the Gold Spot Bowling Alley.

    From 1939 to 1950, the Gold Spot played host to everything from late-night revelry to church gatherings. One article even notes the beginning of a 50-year marriage taking place at a church outing for teens at the alley during the 1940s.

    The alley itself was accessible along Pierce Street, and was serviced by a team of pinboys who set up the pins and returned bowling balls to patrons prior to the invention of pinsetting machines in the late 1940s.

    According to many, the basement alley contained a secret passageway, connecting it to another underground speakeasy (reportedly used by cops and mobsters alike) underneath the Westward Ho hotel across the street.

    In 2003, city officials explored the bowels of the Ho in preparation for construction of the light rail. The trek reportedly unearthed only a series of extremely narrow hallways going north and south along Central, thought to be used for cooling the hotel, with nothing connecting the hotel to the Gold Spot. However, the rumors of a pathway remained.

    Through the decades following the Gold Spot’s closing, the building was occupied by various auto repair shops and dealerships.

    During the 1970s and ‘80s, the basement was rumored to have held a series of underground parties tied to such figures as Kim Moody and DJ Ariel, inhabiting the same arts scene as CRASHarts, Gallery X, Alwun House, Metropophobobia and the Faux Café.

    In 1991, the Nielsen Radio building was torn down, and has since remained a parking lot, known to ASU students and visitors as the appealing “$5 lot” (now $6!).

    From that point on, the only sign of the area’s former life was the remaining vault lights in the sidewalk. Once a common fixture of city streets, providing natural light to the space below, the Gold Spot lights are now the only known lights of their kind in Phoenix.

    A glow illuminates the new face of the sidewalk. (Connor Descheemaker/DD)

    The City and its denizens left the former destination to languish in a struggling downtown as it faded into the memories of elderly residents.

    In 2011, when the City of Phoenix received a streetscape improvement grant, an historic survey was conducted, revealing once again the Gold Spot’s presence.

    Although parts of the basement were filled in to maintain the above road’s structural integrity, a select few people were able to explore the bowels of the alley, taking note of the decaying pin mural and a sign declaring “Please Stay Back of Foul Line”, the only pieces remaining of its former life.

    Around the same time, the Phoenix New Times was doing work on its annual “Best of Phoenix” issue, this time theming it around Phoenix’s “underground”.

    Understandably, the alt-weekly immediately gravitated to the Gold Spot’s history, leading writer Claire Lawton and photographer Dayvid Lemmon to venture to a hole in the vault lights, sinking a camera underground and taking a brief video of the alley’s remnants.

    After rediscovering the building, the City partnered with local architecture and preservation firm Motley Design Group to restore the vault lights and create an interpretive plaque to share this quirky piece of Phoenix’s history.

    The new interpretive plaque, declaring the site's history. (Connor Descheemaker/DD)

    For the project, Motley removed the mostly-shattered glass blocks, cast them, and created a new set of vault lights to pair with the few blocks that remained undamaged. To indicate the former glow of the basement, LED lights were installed below the glass to be lit at night, beckoning passersby forward.

    This past Friday, Robert Graham of Motley and City employees welcomed the public to the new display’s unveiling, sharing a brief history of the property and the combined groups who made this latest tribute possible.

    Though still properly unused, the Gold Spot now has a permanent place in downtown Phoenix’s collective history, standing alongside a block-sized parking lot to help residents and visitors understand what once stood.

  4. Madison & St. James Hotels: Downtown Landmarks or Soon-To-Be History?

    September 10, 2012 by Connor Descheemaker

    On August 30, a demolition permit was issued for property along Madison Street containing two of the Warehouse District’s oldest buildings, the Madison and St. James Hotels.

    The two buildings, bought by Suns Legacy Partners LLC (owners of the NBA’s Phoenix Suns) in 2005 for a rumored $7 million, have sat vacant for over a decade after being in constant use as hotels since early in the 20th century.

    The sign of the Madison Hotel long ago vanished, possibly foreshadowing the building's upcoming fate (Connor Descheemaker/DD)

    In regards to official plans following the demolition, Suns Legacy Partners did not comment in time for this story.

    According to Acting Historic Preservation Officer Michelle Dodds, there are no legal means available to prevent the buildings’ teardown, as “neither structure is [listed] on the local [historic property] register. Had they been listed, they would have three days with the Historic Preservation Office to approve or deny [the demolition].”

    In 1990, the St. James was proposed to be added to the City of Phoenix Historic Property Register, a measure which failed due to opposition from the Hotel’s property owners. Then in 2000, both buildings were put up for inclusion on the register. The measure failed though, again due to opposition from the property owners.

    Both proposals took place prior to the passage of Prop 207 in 2006 which, according to Dodds, effectively prevents the City from declaring private property as historic without the full support from owner.

    Only the St. James Hotel, known for its now-catawampus wooden shades and long-dimmed neon sign, is on the National Register of Historic Places, though the honor is largely ceremonial.

    Up to this point, the permit’s issuance has gone unreported due to uncertainties regarding the owners’ plans for the property.

    Brendan Mahoney, Senior Policy Advisor in the Mayor’s Office, said of the issue “In a big city, the mere fact that someone applies for a permit doesn’t mean it will filter up higher [in the government].”

    But, due to the buildings’ perceived historic value, rumors and news spread more quickly. Mahoney articulated that, upon hearing the news, Mayor Greg Stanton “called up the owners, asking ‘Why are you doing this? What are your goals? What is your motivation?’” in trying to gain an understanding as to the Suns’ decision.

    The Mayor asked the Suns to agree to a brief, monthlong moratorium on demolishing the buildings, to which they agreed, allowing the City assess its resources and hear from the community on what to do with the two former hotels.

    The Madison and St. James Hotels each have long and storied histories, mirroring the boom and bust of downtown Phoenix: First growing to prominence following the arrival of trains at Union Station; falling into disrepair with the exodus of residents and travelers in the city’s core; closing and facing an uncertain fate with the arrival of new investment and the destruction of many nearby historic structures.

    The Madison Hotel as it stands today, boarded up and awaiting its future. (Connor Descheemaker/DD)

    The Madison Hotel was built in 1909, reflecting a simple “20th Century Commercial” style in the words of the Arizona State Historic Property Inventory.

    Currently, the Madison is one of very few pre-statehood buildings left in the state, and one of even fewer in the Warehouse District.

    Though the building was constructed of brick, relatively early in its history the façade was covered with stucco, giving it a more plain appearance in the face of downtown’s more ornate architecture of the day.

    According to an Arizona Republic article from 1939, the Hotel was run by Mrs. Elizabeth Lauver and her husband Clinton from its inception. Elizabeth herself was noted for being “prominent in activities at the First Presbyterian Church”, contrary to the Madison’s later reputation as a notorious flophouse.

    The more ornamented St. James Hotel, though on the National Register of Historic Places, ostensibly stands in the same place as its neighbor. (Connor Descheemaker/DD)

    Next door, the Hotel St. James was built in 1929, arriving six years after the completion of Union Station to welcome travelers from across the country.

    The St. James was designed by Lloyd LeRaine Pike, a well-regarded local architect of the day, and built by the A.F. Wasielewski Construction Company. The latter was especially notable, as the same company was responsible for the construction of the Luhrs Tower, Brophy College Preparatory School and St. Mary’s School.

    The building’s presence on the National Register of Historic Places is likely related to its more ornate design, reflecting a Spanish Colonial influence.

    An Arizona Republican notice from 1929 announcing the Hotel’s construction explains the developers’ plans for the building, highlighting its 50 rooms and proposed roof garden.

    Although each hotel began with good intentions, their final decades were riddled with scandal and danger.

    Longtime Warehouse District advocate, preservationist and property owner Michael Levine spoke most candidly of the Madison and St. James’ later years, noting “they seemed to pull a dead body out of [the hotels] almost every day. Every week there were stories.”

    To many eyes today, the two buildings are largely unremarkable compared to more opulent structures like the Luhrs Tower and Building. In fact, “The only reason they didn’t get demolished is because they were making money,” according to Levine, charging $8 for a half a day, and $10 for a full day to drifters, transients, druggies and all manner of undesirables.

    However, with so few original structures remaining in the historic Warehouse District, some argue that the hotels’ mere presence is enough reason for preservation. In the words of Levine, “[Those] buildings [were] a witness, for better or for worse, to everything…It’s not high architecture, but it’s part of Arizona’s history.”

    From the construction of U.S. Airways Center, Chase Field and CityScape, to the destruction of Barrow Furniture, the Luhrs Hotel and Madison Street Studios, the Madison and St. James have remained in place.

    And now, with the demolition permit approved, they could be no longer.

    Mahoney says the Mayor’s Office is currently examining the City’s resources, “meeting again [this] Tuesday with members of the community to come up with solutions to meet the Suns’ needs.”

    Of the overall process, Mahoney notes that “For brainstorming purposes, the best way to start is with a relatively small group and identify key pillars, [then] turn it over to a big group and refine those pillars.”

    Due to the interests of the property owners, Levine says of the situation, “The only way to really save [the buildings] is if you come up with a creative solution.”

    Blogger’s Note: Vanishing Phoenix will continue to follow this story in the coming weeks and months. Stay tuned for updates.