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    The anonymous buyer, found by Robert Joffe and 8081 Meridian, had rescinded his offer, citing it an unwise business decision, wishing the property well going forward.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


  2. Phoenix Preservationists Move Forward Amid National Attention

    October 26, 2012 by Connor Descheemaker

    A week removed from the demolition of the Madison Hotel, and the preservation community is still reeling.

    The remains of the Madison Hotel sit glaring into the still-growing core of downtown. (Connor Descheemaker/DD)

    Since then, the eye of the national preservation community has once again zeroed in on Phoenix.

    On Sunday, The New York Times ran a lengthy feature piece in its New York print edition on the precarious-at-best position of historic buildings in Phoenix, making distinct note of both the David & Gladys Wright House and the Madison Hotel.

    Then a few days later, veteran arts and architecture writer Robrt L. Pela contributed a post to the Phoenix New Times, articulating exactly why, in particular, the Wright House is “architecture worth saving”.

    And just yesterday, several sources reported the re-listing of the Wright House for sale, though the property’s owners have been quoted as saying that if the house is awarded Landmark status by the City Council, they will simply sit on the property for the requisite three years, and demolish it anyway.

    Ironically, this past weekend also marked the arrival of the informal season of historic building tours, beginning with the Grand Avenue Historic Commercial Building and Adaptive Reuse tours.

    Looking down Grand at Bragg’s Pies and the Lodge, two historic spots renovated and repurposed in the name of art. (Connor Descheemaker/DD)

    Back for their fourth year, the tours showcased rarely-seen buildings on lower Grand Avenue, guided by a variety of Phoenix historians, including Marshall Shore, Douglas Towne, John Jacquemart and Will Novak. This year, the featured buildings were the 1935 Phoenix Laundry and Dry Cleaning (still active as Milum Textiles), the 1917 OS Stapley Hardware Store buildings and the 1940s masonry building at 1205 W. Grand, now a working law office.

    The tours themselves though, are but a few of many adaptively reused properties along Grand. Galleries, studios, shops and even residences occupy such structures as the 1920s Shaugnessey buildings, 1930s Piggly Wiggly, 1930s Bragg’s Pies and 1930 Foursquare Gospel Church, among others.

    Compared to nearly any other street in Phoenix, Grand cares about its historic properties.

    Thanks to the stewardship of artist and property owner Beatrice Moore since the 1990s, Grand has established its legacy of preservation, leading others (including architecture and preservation firm Motley Design Group) to locate on the Avenue and bank on its continued growth.

    Bordering parts of Grand is the F.Q. Story Neighborhood, which will host its own 28th annual historic home tour and street fair.

    Ten homes of varying design and age will be open to the public over two days, showcasing architectural styles including Spanish Colonial Revival, English Tudor, Craftsman bungalows and Transitional Ranch, according to the tour’s website.

    Over the years, Story has positioned itself as one of the best-preserved and best-organized neighborhoods in Central Phoenix, fighting tooth and nail for the cause of preservation in the face of big-money development, and the encroachment of the I-10 freeway in the 1980s.

    Students in the ASU Community Encounters class begin their tour of downtown at the Louis Emerson House. (Connor Descheemaker/DD)

    Also on November 2nd, just a few blocks away, the Evans-Churchill Community Association is holding its second Interesting Interiors Tour, offering public looks inside of the neighborhood’s most architecturally-significant buildings.

    Though Evans-Churchill has faced much harder luck than its neighbors over the years in regard to preservation, it still plays host to a variety of significant structures.

    Among the dozen-plus properties on display are the pre-statehood Louis Emerson House, the Brockway House, Combine Studios, monOrchid and 300M.

    Even as Phoenix at large struggles to find its footing to preserve its most significant structures, individual neighborhoods continue to fight the good fight, proudly displaying their victories to the public at every opportunity.

    For those who think this city has no history, one only needs to venture to one of the tours listed above to see the pride in the past that remains among Phoenix’s more passionate souls and in its more unique neighborhoods.


  3. Clock Ticks Out for Historic Madison; Hope for St. James Remains

    October 18, 2012 by Connor Descheemaker

    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.

    The excavator makes its first mark on the pre-statehood Madison’s East wall. (Jack Fitzpatrick/DD)

    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.”

    A rare peek into the front door of the St. James Hotel (Connor Descheemaker/DD)

    In a phone interview during the demolition’s proceedings, City Manager and preservation advocate David Cavazos made clear the City’s role in the historic properties’ life.

    “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.”

    (Jack Fitzpatrick/DD)

    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.


  4. Historic Hayden Mill Returns to the Public

    October 12, 2012 by Connor Descheemaker

    This last week was a big one for Vanishing Phoenix, with the story of the Madison and St. James hotels (which we broke early in September) getting press across the city.

    After its mention at the Camelback East Village Planning Committee by the developers of the David and Gladys Wright House, the story of the Phoenix Suns and the historic Madison and St. James hotels hit the local press.

    The current face of the Madison & St. James hotels (Connor Descheemaker/DD)

    First, The Arizona Republic put the story on the front page of its Valley & State section. Then, the Phoenix Business Journal covered it, even citing my original article in its research. ABC15 and KTAR also did reports, and local 3TV spoke of the future potential of the buildings, interviewing me for their article and video piece.

    During that same time, developer and property owner Michael Levine released a series of architectural renderings on Facebook, detailing how the buildings could be reused while still accommodating the Suns’ needs for the land.

    Although the Suns are still free to pursue any option with the property, the story seems to slowly be attracting a groundswell of support from the community. Talks are even in the works to start a Change.org petition to save the buildings, matching the current MyPlanPhx idea to keep the historic hotels intact.

    The Madison and St. James hotels are run-down and long-abandoned. But clearly, there is more beneath the surface with these historic structures.

    Just last week, the city of Tempe officially welcomed the historic Hayden Flour Mill back into the public eye.

    First constructed in 1874, the Mill fell victim to two fires, with its current structure being completed in 1918 and finally made fireproof.

    According to the official Tempe website listing for the building, it is currently the “oldest cast-in-place, reinforced concrete building in Tempe”. And upon its closing in 1998, the Mill was the longest continuously-in-use industrial building in the Valley.

    The building had sat vacant and abandoned to the elements since its closing, even falling victim to yet another fire.

    Prior to the real estate crash of the mid-2000s, the Mill was the subject of a failed adaptive-reuse project, which would have developed the area into a highrise complex, rivaling that of West Sixth just off Mill Avenue.

    With prospects for redevelopment slim in the still-sluggish local economy, the City of Tempe chose to partner with the Rio Salado Foundation and Downtown Tempe Community, Inc. to give the iconic Mill a slight facelift and a temporary use.

    After a few months of construction, the Mill has reopened as an events venue and public space, complete with new public art and interpretive displays and lighting to highlight the structure’s past.

    Vanishing Phoenix was present at the reopening celebration, and was lucky enough to get a peek inside the first floor of the building. Below are the photos from the tour of the premesis.

    The exterior of the Hayden Flour Mill during its grand opening. (Connor Descheemaker/DD)

    Tom Jones of the Phoenix Historic Preservation Commission led tours of the first floor of the building throughout the evening. (Connor Descheemaker/DD)

    Though only the first floor was open to the public, visitors could peer into rooms at the periphery of the Mill, used for production. (Connor Descheemaker/DD)

    The main portion of the ground floor was used for office space during the Mill's years of operation. (Connor Descheemaker/DD)


  5. Lawyer’s Claims on Wright House Less Than Accurate

    October 5, 2012 by Connor Descheemaker

    At the beginning of June, the word began spreading through the preservation community of a threat to one of our state’s (and possibly our nation’s) most significant homes.

    The City of Phoenix approved a lot split for a property in the Arcadia neighborhood of Phoenix. The particular arrangement of the split (right down the middle of the house on the property) effectively approved demolition.

    The house in question was the David and Gladys Wright House, built in 1952 by arguably the world’s most famous and prominent architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, to house his son and his family.

    An image of the David & Gladys Wright House during an open house this past weekend. (Connor Descheemaker/DD)

    The home had been recently purchased by the high-end, McMansion-producing development firm 8081 Meridian, who aimed to tear down the house and build two more houses in its place across the massive lot, effectively doubling their money.

    The historic home was constructed and designed entirely by Wright himself, from the structure to the carpets—one of roughly 30 such buildings in the United States. The home is especially noted for its curvilinear design, echoing the world-famous Guggenheim Museum design in New York, which wouldn’t be completed for another seven years.

    But I’m not here to tell you about the history of the house and what’s happened up to this point. You can check out The New York Times, NPR, CBS or The Arizona Republic to hear those stories.

    The reason I’m writing today is to address something brought up just a few days ago at the Camelback East Village Planning Committee meeting, where the Wright House narrowly was approved to go forward in the landmark designation process.

    (Connor Descheemaker/DD)

    Thanks to some tips from a few attendees, and a recording of the meeting, it came to my attention that the lawyer for 8081 Meridian, in his defense of the developers’ property rights, referenced an article of mine from earlier this year on the process to save downtown’s historic Madison and St. James hotels.

    In his comments, Christopher W. Kramer noted a quote of from Michelle Dodds, Acting Historic Preservation Officer for the City of Phoenix. The quote in question read as follows:

    “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].””

    Responding to the quote, Kramer said of the situation, “When we’re talking about the Phoenix Suns, well we can’t do anything about that because the owner doesn’t consent to its designation as an historic property…but when we’re talking about 8081 Meridian…building houses one house at a time, we can play with them, we can take their private property rights.”

    But upon further research, it became apparent that this case and that of the Hotels are completely separate. While the Hotels were seeking a spot on the city’s Historic Property Register, the Wright House is in the process of Landmark designation. And from there, the cases become even more disparate.

    I consulted with Ms. Dodds on the situation just the other day. She stated that with the Hotels, there had been multiple attempts to get the properties added to the Register, and each time they were denied by the City Council due to lack of property owner support. But, “On this house, the Council has no precedent. The Council has never had the opportunity [to hear the case].”

    Additionally, in pursuing Landmark designation (a designation initiated by the Zoning Department rather than Historic Preservation), there is no need to obtain the property owner’s consent, as long as at least one of the five criteria listed in the zoning ordinance are met.

    According to Grady Gammage, Jr., land-use attorney and son of the namesake for one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most notable buildings, Kramer first “cited the wrong section of the ordinance. [If it had been] Historic Preservation Policy they won’t initiate—but this wasn’t initiated by Historic Preservation. [It has become] city council policy that they won’t approve [landmark designation] without owner consent, which won’t become an issue until the November 7th city council meeting.”

    At the meeting itself, Gammage made his case even more clear.

    “…owner consent is required by the ordinance. It’s not. Owner consent is a policy that was adopted by the city council, and is therefore applied at the city council level in the post-[proposition] 207 time frame. You heard a claim that it is not possible for initiation of this kind of designation without the owner’s signature on the application form. That is clearly wrong…It specifically says that the historic preservation commission or the planning commission can initiate.”*

    The developers then argued that the state’s use of the property would be considered a “taking” under the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution.

    Mr. Gammage again refuted this claim, citing the Penn Central Transportation Co. Vs. New York City, a Supreme Court case which in effect ruled that historic property designation was not a “taking” under the Constitution.

    In Arizona, a Landmark designation only provides a three-year stay of demolition. In Gammage’s words at the meeting, “No, it’s only a three-year delay, which doesn’t rise to a Constitutional taking.”

    There was still yet more to 8081’s argument, claiming that the designation, under Prop 207, would leave the owners entitled to compensation from the City because such a ruling would hurt their property values.

    Mr. Gammage again responded in kind:

    “[The owners] didn’t close [on the property] until after the landmark process was begun. [And they] have had offers [on the property] predicated on it being designated historic. Clearly the landmark status isn’t hurting the land values of it at all. In fact, it’s probably helping its value since so many people know about this.”

    At the moment, the developers have multiple offers on the table from those looking to preserve the House, including one reportedly offering over $2 million in cash, giving the owners a profit of over $200,000, basically invalidating any claim of economic hardship.

    The overall confidence though of the developers remains.

    In his closing comments at the meeting, lawyer Christopher Kramer stated, “You can’t allow it. We won’t allow it. The courts won’t allow it. So you’re buying a lawsuit, basically, by approving this. By pushing it up the chain. You’re buying a lawsuit for the City of Phoenix. And we’re going to win. And the house is going to come down anyway.”

    We shall see.

    (Connor Descheemaker/DD)

    *Blogger’s Note: Mr. Gammage’s Proposition 207 reference refers to a law passed by the public in 2006, which puts the state’s money in the balance if a particular land use law affects the property value of a private piece of land, among other factors. (The complete text of the proposition can be read here.)

    Blogger’s Note: A huge thank you to Jim McPherson, Will Novak, Michelle Dodds and Grady Gammage, Jr. for tipping me off to the content of the meeting, and helping with the research for this post. Also, an even bigger thank you to Dan Mitchell of the “Save the David and Gladys Wright House” Facebook group, who graciously provided me with a recording of most of the Village Planning Committee meeting.