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 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 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 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.