Welcome back! After a two-week hiatus, Vanishing Phoenix is back for the summer.
On our Facebook page this week, we experienced a HUGE jump in traffic after we reposted a New Times article on the changing face of the historic My Florist block along McDowell Road just east of Seventh Avenue.
After a fairly long back-and-forth, it came out that there was some misinformation being spread in the article, and the whole story wasn’t being told. For those that didn’t see the Facebook conversation, we’ll be talking about the fate of the fabled My Florist sign at the end of this post.
With the historic sign being in the news once again, we felt it the perfect opportunity to tell the story of My Florist and its decades-long history presiding over McDowell Road.
The Community Flower Shop
My Florist flower shop opened its doors to the public in 1947, to a just-booming postwar Phoenix population.
Vada Pearl Schwartz, founder of the shop, opened a store with character to match her own. Known for her love of purple and eccentric behavior, Schwartz’s business quickly thrived thanks to its well-traveled location.
The famed sign was said to be designed by legendary Phoenix neon sign designer Glen Guyett. Guyett was (and still is) highly-regarded across the Valley for his monumental sign work, including the rotating sign which adorned the top of Valley National Bank’s headquarters (soon to be Hotel Monroe), Buckhorn Baths in Mesa, Mr. Lucky’s and Bill Johnson’s Big Apple.
At over three stories tall, the enormous My Florist sign loomed over all other buildings for several blocks in every direction, welcoming visitors to a Willo neighborhood destination.
According to local lore, Schwartz held a special affinity for purple, claiming orchids as her favorite flower and always dressing in purple, making the business’ color scheme match her own affections.
A family business, My Florist was run by Vada until her death in 1966, upon which time the store was taken over by her daughter, Norma Brooking. Just like her mother, Brooking kept the business successful until her death, upon which time the store’s dedicated employees decided to keep the store alive via a trust set up by the Schwartz before her death.
In 1996, the famed shop finally closed its doors for good. However, the historic building and its incredible sign would not be unoccupied for long.
The Community Café
Just a short while after the closure of My Florist, a new restaurant and wine bar arrived to save the day, taking over not only the building, but its namesake: My Florist Café.
From the end of the ‘90s through the entirety of the 2000s, the Café did brisk business thanks to its unique sandwiches and salads, and popular bar.
During a time when Phoenix lacked many true “destinations” for dining, My Florist Café proved a pioneer, attracting neighborhood residents renovating the nearby houses, businesspeople eager for lunch options along McDowell, and out-of-towners looking for hip locales in a still-growing Central Phoenix.
In the evenings, the spot transformed into a swank late-night hangout (by Phoenix standards), staying open till midnight and featuring the talents of Nicole Pesce on the restaurant’s trademark grand piano.
First spotted doing lunches at the Phoenecian hotel near the Biltmore, Pesce came to perform five nights per week at the Café, working marathon five-hour sets which seamlessly transitioned between classical excerpts and adaptations of pop hits. With over 12,000 songs said to be in her repertoire, Pesce became known for taking texted-in requests while playing and immediately working them into her sets.
Sadly though, following declining business and the opening of a second location in California, My Florist Café unexpectedly closed at the end of September, 2010. The last major tenant of the historic Hurley Building at Seventh Avenue and McDowell, the structure and sign’s future were left uncertain amid development rumors for the surrounding area.
A Face Going Forward
The first plans for the My Florist block were released in early 2011 by developer Lawrence & Geyser. Suspiciously, the famed sign was not included in renderings, leading many to worry about its fate.
Over time, construction consumed all sides of the McDowell corridor, with the demolition of an entire complex next to My Florist, and the renovation of the plaza across the street, as detailed in our last post.
According to this week’s New Times article, the My Florist building is due to be inhabited by a new location of the rapidly-expanding Habit Burger chain (across the street from a Five Guys burger joint, no less).
The entire façade of the retro building is being replaced, with a new patio and entry build-out according to the wishes of the developer and new tenant.
After hearing from some local advocates, a member of the Willo Neighborhood Association and others, it came to light that the My Florist sign (and building) is currently protected under the Historic Zoning Overlay, forcing any changes to go before the Historic Preservation Office and other city offices. In a nutshell: the sign is safe for the time being.
The many faces of the My Florist building are analogous to the history of much of Downtown and its surrounding historic areas. All are constantly facing new challenges and changes, and many are now being transformed into franchised businesses.
Residents and activists across the Downtown area are currently facing a new influx of investment, and must decide whether to support it choose another path. So we must ask, what is character in Phoenix? And how do we shape it into the vision we want?