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Posts Tagged ‘City of Phoenix’

  1. With neighboring Madison gone, Hotel St. James faces its final days whole

    December 12, 2012 by Connor Descheemaker

    A few months after its sister similarly lost its right to a future, the St. James Hotel is facing its own demise.

    An excavator and cherry-picker loom atop the former foundation of the Madison Hotel. (Connor Descheemaker/DD)

    The dotted lines have been cut into the building, just behind its entry section—its carcass picked apart and exposed to the elements to ensure just the right pieces are preserved, and the “wrong” pieces taken apart.

    Monday, the first workers were spotted on the site, on its second floor, removing bricks well over 80 years old from their long-nested locales. Simultaneously, an excavator and a cherry-picker were brought to rest on the grave of the neighboring Madison Hotel, leering at the St. James’ withering form.

    In their initial press releases, both the City of Phoenix and the Phoenix Suns promised the preservation of the front façade of the St. James Hotel, which was deemed by each to be the only part of the neighboring hotels that was “architecturally significant”.

    But in October, when the Madison came down, the press seemed to neglect the fact that although only the St. James’ front face was promised a savior, its entire skeleton remained following two days of demolition and cleanup.

    The last rows of bricks from the Madison Hotel, slowly being peeled away. (Connor Descheemaker/DD)

    Though the Suns (the property’s owners) seem to be in a major hurry to tear down the structures, with the basketball season already begun it seems odd that the holders are so eager to see this through to its conclusion.

    According to neighboring property owner and preservation advocate Michael Levine, it was only a matter of time before the variables of cost, demolition team availability and stabilizing architect lined up to take down the St. James.

    Even more disheartening, word has emerged that city officials in 2010 changed an ordinance forbidding the demolition of a property such as the Madison or St. James within a block that was at least 67% intact—a qualification which this particular block easily met prior to the demolition of the two hotels.

    In the world of preservation, buildings are revered for the presence of tremendous design flair and the names associated with their history, whether that is the building’s architect or a famous tenant.

    The endgame of this is a city built by the winners; just as history is written by the winners, so too is the architectural record. But just the same, this leads to a city with only one set of voices.

    The Madison and St. James hotels never hosted celebrities. Neither was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. And neither was a keystone of any particular era of the downtown Phoenix community.

    But the stories within their walls still deserve a place.

    The more famed Luhrs Building and Jefferson Hotel peek through the negative space of the St. James’ former rooftop garden. (Connor Descheemaker/DD)

    Even dating back to their respective grand openings, the Madison and St. James were home to transients of many sorts: travelers, salesmen and new arrivals to the city, as well as prostitutes, addicts and the destitute.

    Though none of those “types” obviously shape the agenda of a city, especially one as ever-evolving as Phoenix, they remain a presence—a reminder of the reality of life in a diverse community.

    Largely arriving via train, the customers of the hotels weren’t looking for the largest or most picturesque accommodations. They were merely seeking a place to lay their heads.

    As downtown transitions into its next grandiose phase of development, the power of this simple desire is one that cannot be lost. These people deserve to be remembered. Their voices and hopes and dreams and even failures hold just as much weight as those of the Goldwaters, Hensleys and O’Connors.

    Neither of the hotels rose to prominence concurrent with their neighbors at the Luhrs and Jefferson hotels. Neither experienced a boom with the arrival of the Phoenix Suns in downtown.

    But till the end of the 20th century, the hotels’ tenants lingered in the periphery of the thousands who scrambled in and out of our city’s core for the glory of sport.

    What once stood as the last threads of connection to Phoenix’s laborers and hard-luck passersby now will stand as a brick-clad ornament for the VIPs of the city’s longest-running athletic tenant.

    Surveying the scene of the demolition on Tuesday, workers had begun to remove bricks from the back edge of the building’s entryway, marking the point of no return. Long-boarded windows were exposed and smashed to show the excavator where to begin its rending.

    The St. James Hotel’s emaciated and faded form is now most indicative of the many who wandered its halls.

    Though forgotten and swept aside, their strong bones and bricks held strong to the march of time.

    (Connor Descheemaker/DD)

  2. 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.

  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.