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Posts Tagged ‘Phoenix Suns’

  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. 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.


  3. Madison & St. James Hotels: Downtown Landmarks or Soon-To-Be History?

    September 10, 2012 by Connor Descheemaker

    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.

    The sign of the Madison Hotel long ago vanished, possibly foreshadowing the building's upcoming fate (Connor Descheemaker/DD)

    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 as it stands today, boarded up and awaiting its future. (Connor Descheemaker/DD)

    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.

    The more ornamented St. James Hotel, though on the National Register of Historic Places, ostensibly stands in the same place as its neighbor. (Connor Descheemaker/DD)

    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.