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