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November, 2012

  1. 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)

  2. Sudden Changes in Wright House Fight Cause Public Uncertainty

    November 16, 2012 by Connor Descheemaker

    Victories in Phoenix are rarely certainties, especially in the realm of preservation.

    In a state which takes its private property rights so seriously, and the development dollar trumps all regulation, vigilance is the most vital of characteristics in an historic-building advocate.

    For a brief weekend in late summer, the David and Gladys Wright House was opened to the public, exhibiting the home’s profound character and design sense for all to see. (Connor Descheemaker/DD)

    Just last week, architects, preservationists and designers the world-over were engaging in a collective sigh of relief, with the announcement that a “preservation-minded” buyer had been found for the David and Gladys Wright House. After nearly six months of frantic work among preservation advocates, public hearings, threats of demolition and negotiations in the Mayor’s office, it appeared that the public could breathe once more, knowing that an historic house would be in good hands.

    Then suddenly, on Veterans’ Day, while the home was in escrow, everything changed.

    The anonymous buyer, found by Robert Joffe and 8081 Meridian, had rescinded his offer, citing it an unwise business decision, wishing the property well going forward.

    All the months of work were once again for naught.

    In the wake of the initial buyer announcement, Mayor Greg Stanton and the City Council made the decision to delay voting on the building’s Landmark status, wishing to make contact with the new owner first, and get him or her on-board with the historic designation. Also during this time, the buyer contacted Grady Gammage, Jr., a locally-renowned land-use lawyer and water expert, preservation advocate and son of the namesake for one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most notable Arizona designs, Gammage Auditorium on ASU’s Tempe campus.

    The score seemed to finally be coming together, and this mysterious figure was playing all the right notes with the Wright fighters. Now, with the Landmark City Council vote delayed till the beginning of December, and the House still in the erratic hands of 8081 Meridian, what the future holds is anyone’s guess, and the overall fight has taken a baby-step backward.

    Even though the final vote was ultimately delayed, last week’s Phoenix City Council meeting still featured the powerful testimonies of Janet Halstead and Larry Woodin, the Executive Director and President of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, respectively, who had each scheduled their visits to Phoenix before the buyer was announced. The two’s thoughtful speeches, alongside letters from the Director of the Guggenheim New York (a building also designed by Wright), Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP (architects of the Sears Tower in Chicago), and Barry Bergdoll of Columbia University and the Museum of Modern Art, served to seal any uncertainties as to the design significance of the David and Gladys Wright House.

    Following the announcement of the deal’s failure, some sources close to the preservation fight claimed that the Wright Building Conservancy still had multiple buyers interested in pursuing purchase of the property. Though none have publicly owned up to the reported interest, some found solace in the promise of future offers on the property.

    Meanwhile, on the Internet, the community grew restless. The failure of the deal and delay of the Landmark vote worried many as to the long-term viability and power of preservation in Phoenix as a whole.

    Individuals with no personal stake in preservation efforts began proposing solutions of their own, with particular interest being shown in the idea of a cooperative purchase of the property, with potentially thousands donating a few hundred dollars and gift the House to the Wright Building Conservancy, or another like-minded group to preserve the space for the public.

    (Connor Descheemaker/DD)

    But despite that idea’s immediate interest, those with the greatest stake in preservation took great pains to express the associated difficulties with such a purchase, urging interested parties to continue their advocacy efforts. That way, the home’s physical future could in the hands of professionals already making waves, who have long been in talks with both the City of Phoenix and the property owners at 8081 Meridian.

    With tensions and anxiety reaching a fever pitch among those clamoring to save the David and Gladys Wright House, focus must be kept now more than ever. As the search for a new buyer continues, the City of Phoenix and the thousands of avowed supporters of preservation must push forward in taking all due measures to protect the house.

    First and foremost, that means designating the house a Landmark in Phoenix, guaranteeing it protection from demolition for three years, providing vital time to find an agreeable buyer. But more than that, it means focus and calm.

    If Phoenix wishes to get serious about preserving its past, there is no better litmus test than the preservation of one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most acclaimed and sentimental designs in the David and Gladys Wright House.

    An educated, united front is all that can protect history, physical or otherwise.