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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 Comments »

  1. Nadine Lockhart says:

    Thank you for this evocative article, but remember, even a Frank Lloyd Wright doesn’t seem to be safe here in Phoenix [sic--paragraph 11].

  2. Rob Melikian says:

    Alexander Steinegger came from Switzerland and bought a lot in the new city of Phoenix in 1872. He became the town’s ice cream man and had a confectionery shop on Washington. By 1889 he had made enough money to build a lodging house. Even though Phoenix only had 3000 people, it had just became the State Capitol and the new railroad connection was bringing people.
    He built the Steinegger Lodging House on his lot, just east of Center (Central Ave) on Monroe St. in 1889. It had hanging gardens on the porch over the sidewalk. It made so much money that he expanded it in 1911, when Roosevelt Dam assured a steady water supply. Both buildings are still standing, intact with most of their original details. The facade is covered over in ugly white stucco but there is a beautiful two story Victorian building underneath.
    Please contact the owner – Michael Coolidge of CSM Corp and influence him to save the building, 612-395-7000. His company is deciding what to do with it right now.
    Thank you,
    Robert Melikian
    602-326-2488

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