Downtown Phoenix awakened yesterday to the sound of construction equipment rending the walls of one of the Warehouse District’s oldest remaining commercial structures.
Around 10 a.m., an excavator belched to life on the grounds of the historic Madison and St. James Hotels, clawing its way into the exterior of the pre-statehood Madison.
Just Monday evening, at the monthly Historic Preservation Commission inside City Hall, Acting Director of the Historic Preservation Office Michelle Dodds reported that the City of Phoenix was in talks with the property owners, Suns Legacy Partners, to preserve at least part of the historic structures. However, she made sure to note that the Suns could demolish the properties at any time.
But much to the surprise of many on the Commission board, earlier that same day, chainlink fencing went up around the perimeter of the hotels. And the following day, the fateful excavator made its way into the alley of the buildings.
Throughout Wednesday, dozens passed Madison Street across from US Airways Center to say their final goodbyes to the Madison Hotel.
Across the alleyway from the hotels, Margie Falls has sat for ten years as the Manager of Downtown Mini Storage, an Ed Varney-designed storage facility dating back to 1947.
“It’s kind of hard to watch. I’ve been here [in Phoenix] since 1928. [There have been] too many old teardowns.”
For nearly every year of her 84-year life, Falls has resided in central Phoenix and witnessed the immense changes that have taken place in the area.
“I’d like to see it almost like it was after World War II…When the Second World War happened, everyone moved East. If you wanted to better yourself and you had money, you moved out of this place.”
Of the historic hotels’ clientele and reputation during their final years of operation, Falls said “The hotel and bar always catered to the homeless and very poor. It’s always been a district that [you] wouldn’t come into after dark.”
“Several years ago, the Historic Preservation Officer at the time recommended the [Madison and St. James] for designation, and the City Manager agreed. The City Council, though, did not approve (historic) designation.”
This was largely due to a policy enacted by the City Council in the wake of Prop 207, by which the council will not approve a property for historic designation without the owner’s approval.
In the words of Mr. Cavazos, “Historic preservation is an encumbrance on property. Based on the way it’s designated, it’s valued differently.”
In effect, this means that the City cannot place such a burden of historic-ness upon a property owner without their full agreement.
But in this particular case, due to the Suns’ unique position as tenants of City property and partners with local government in a number of ways, Mayor Greg Stanton was able to step in and ask the Suns to delay the demolition at least temporarily, so that a healthier solution might be reached.
“Sarver and others have a longstanding relationship with the City. They’ve been excellent partners and (Sarver) [has] held up his end of the bargain,” stated Cavazos in regard to Phoenix’s past with the Suns.
With the St. James Hotel specifically being included on the National Register of Historic Places, the City was provided with some minimal leverage for the preservation of at least one of the structures.
Cavazos said of the negotiations with the property owners, “The Mayor and [City] Manager looked at all options, and based on that encouragement, made a proposal to the Suns.”
Further, Cavazos noted “When you have a partnership, [you] must have an entire partnership, and consider all factors and maintain transparency,” in regard to the Suns’ private property rights in the negotiations.
But despite the talk of transparency, no details of the final preservation agreement between the Suns and the City were announced until after the demolition of the Madison Hotel was completed.
In a prepared statement released to the media, Suns President Jason Rowley declared the change of heart experienced by the owners through their talks with the City:
“After weeks of discussions, we are pleased to announce that through the leadership of Mayor Stanton and our management, we have reached an agreement that will save a significant portion of the St. James Hotel while allowing us to repurpose property which was, for the most part, unsalvageable.
Our original plan was to raze both the Madison and St. James Hotels to meet the increased parking needs of the arena and surrounding downtown businesses. The Mayor contacted us and asked that we put our plans on hold so that we could explore other options, which we agreed to do. In the end, we were able to get access to additional parking and save the most architecturally significant portion of the St. James Hotel, preserving a piece of Arizona’s history for future generations.”
According to suppositions from several sources, the plan is to preserve the St. James’ lobby and front façade, though the entirety of the structure remains in place as of press time.
Though still claiming a minor victory, Mayor Stanton was less jovial in his prepared statement.
“The Suns agreed to save a portion of the St. James, a hotel that is on the National Register of Historic Places, and I appreciate that the Suns changed their plan and accommodated my request. This instance highlights a larger policy issue our city faces. The city’s current investment in historic structures is inadequate, and if we really want to be serious about preserving historic buildings in the future, we need to find better financial solutions.”
In a week that has seen the continuation of the David Wright House saga and the destruction of a century-old adobe structure in Higley, the Madison serves as another snapshot of Phoenix’s history, vanished.