On August 30, a demolition permit was issued for property along Madison Street containing two of the Warehouse District’s oldest buildings, the Madison and St. James Hotels.
The two buildings, bought by Suns Legacy Partners LLC (owners of the NBA’s Phoenix Suns) in 2005 for a rumored $7 million, have sat vacant for over a decade after being in constant use as hotels since early in the 20th century.
In regards to official plans following the demolition, Suns Legacy Partners did not comment in time for this story.
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].”
In 1990, the St. James was proposed to be added to the City of Phoenix Historic Property Register, a measure which failed due to opposition from the Hotel’s property owners. Then in 2000, both buildings were put up for inclusion on the register. The measure failed though, again due to opposition from the property owners.
Both proposals took place prior to the passage of Prop 207 in 2006 which, according to Dodds, effectively prevents the City from declaring private property as historic without the full support from owner.
Only the St. James Hotel, known for its now-catawampus wooden shades and long-dimmed neon sign, is on the National Register of Historic Places, though the honor is largely ceremonial.
Up to this point, the permit’s issuance has gone unreported due to uncertainties regarding the owners’ plans for the property.
Brendan Mahoney, Senior Policy Advisor in the Mayor’s Office, said of the issue “In a big city, the mere fact that someone applies for a permit doesn’t mean it will filter up higher [in the government].”
But, due to the buildings’ perceived historic value, rumors and news spread more quickly. Mahoney articulated that, upon hearing the news, Mayor Greg Stanton “called up the owners, asking ‘Why are you doing this? What are your goals? What is your motivation?’” in trying to gain an understanding as to the Suns’ decision.
The Mayor asked the Suns to agree to a brief, monthlong moratorium on demolishing the buildings, to which they agreed, allowing the City assess its resources and hear from the community on what to do with the two former hotels.
The Madison and St. James Hotels each have long and storied histories, mirroring the boom and bust of downtown Phoenix: First growing to prominence following the arrival of trains at Union Station; falling into disrepair with the exodus of residents and travelers in the city’s core; closing and facing an uncertain fate with the arrival of new investment and the destruction of many nearby historic structures.
The Madison Hotel was built in 1909, reflecting a simple “20th Century Commercial” style in the words of the Arizona State Historic Property Inventory.
Currently, the Madison is one of very few pre-statehood buildings left in the state, and one of even fewer in the Warehouse District.
Though the building was constructed of brick, relatively early in its history the façade was covered with stucco, giving it a more plain appearance in the face of downtown’s more ornate architecture of the day.
According to an Arizona Republic article from 1939, the Hotel was run by Mrs. Elizabeth Lauver and her husband Clinton from its inception. Elizabeth herself was noted for being “prominent in activities at the First Presbyterian Church”, contrary to the Madison’s later reputation as a notorious flophouse.
Next door, the Hotel St. James was built in 1929, arriving six years after the completion of Union Station to welcome travelers from across the country.
The St. James was designed by Lloyd LeRaine Pike, a well-regarded local architect of the day, and built by the A.F. Wasielewski Construction Company. The latter was especially notable, as the same company was responsible for the construction of the Luhrs Tower, Brophy College Preparatory School and St. Mary’s School.
The building’s presence on the National Register of Historic Places is likely related to its more ornate design, reflecting a Spanish Colonial influence.
An Arizona Republican notice from 1929 announcing the Hotel’s construction explains the developers’ plans for the building, highlighting its 50 rooms and proposed roof garden.
Although each hotel began with good intentions, their final decades were riddled with scandal and danger.
Longtime Warehouse District advocate, preservationist and property owner Michael Levine spoke most candidly of the Madison and St. James’ later years, noting “they seemed to pull a dead body out of [the hotels] almost every day. Every week there were stories.”
To many eyes today, the two buildings are largely unremarkable compared to more opulent structures like the Luhrs Tower and Building. In fact, “The only reason they didn’t get demolished is because they were making money,” according to Levine, charging $8 for a half a day, and $10 for a full day to drifters, transients, druggies and all manner of undesirables.
However, with so few original structures remaining in the historic Warehouse District, some argue that the hotels’ mere presence is enough reason for preservation. In the words of Levine, “[Those] buildings [were] a witness, for better or for worse, to everything…It’s not high architecture, but it’s part of Arizona’s history.”
From the construction of U.S. Airways Center, Chase Field and CityScape, to the destruction of Barrow Furniture, the Luhrs Hotel and Madison Street Studios, the Madison and St. James have remained in place.
And now, with the demolition permit approved, they could be no longer.
Mahoney says the Mayor’s Office is currently examining the City’s resources, “meeting again [this] Tuesday with members of the community to come up with solutions to meet the Suns’ needs.”
Of the overall process, Mahoney notes that “For brainstorming purposes, the best way to start is with a relatively small group and identify key pillars, [then] turn it over to a big group and refine those pillars.”
Due to the interests of the property owners, Levine says of the situation, “The only way to really save [the buildings] is if you come up with a creative solution.”
Blogger’s Note: Vanishing Phoenix will continue to follow this story in the coming weeks and months. Stay tuned for updates.