The main waiting room of New York's Pennsylvania Station, shortly before it was demolished in 1963.
The effort to save the David and Gladys Wright House has become a cause célèbre, or as much of one that can find traction in the sprawling, just-rolled-in-from-Minnesota "civic" climate of metro Phoenix. A Facebook page has been set up. The New York Times flew in architecture critic Michael Kimmelman to write an appreciation of this Frank Lloyd Wright work, including such details omitted by the local media as the demolition company (!) being the one who realized the treasure they had been engaged to rip down and going to the city. The odds of success are long. Perhaps if this were the Joe Arpaio House and it was being torn down to create a day labor center for illegal immigrants. Otherwise, only the Resistance and minority of Resistance-minded citizens have a clue.
The modern preservation movement in America is often traced to the 1963 destruction of Pennsylvania Station, the classically-inspired masterwork of McKim, Mead and White in New York City. It was replaced by a brutalist Madison Square Garden with the railroad station in rat-passages underneath. New York has never gotten over this loss, nor should it. But it ensured that thousands of buildings nationwide were saved, including Grand Central Terminal. This never happened in Phoenix, yet it's not because we wanted for something grand like Pennsylvania Station to be destroyed by barbarians.
The Japanese Flower Gardens was one of our Pennsylvania Stations, a breathtaking Eden at the foot of the South Mountains. The gardens ran for miles along the legendary and evocatively named Baseline Road and offered staggering views of the city — and for anyone, not just the toffs. Lost. Replaced by miles of schlock subdivisions, faux stucco apartments, fast-food boxes and huge expanses of asphalt. Nothing was learned from this colossal act of vandalism. Not one change came to land-use regulations or an attempt at farmland preservation.
Another Pennsylvania Station was citrus groves that surrounded the city, providing not only a valuable export and local food source, but shade, beauty and cooling. As late as the 1970s, unbroken groves ran for miles in east Mesa and near Glendale on the Arrowhead Ranch. Lost to "master planned communities" that are neither master-planned nor communities, all lookalike crapola subdivisions and malls and yet more concrete and asphalt. I remember driving around Mesa in the 2000s with a city official, and I asked him, given the precious resource and piece of history that these groves represent, was any preservation being considered. He pointed to a few orange trees sitting in a median: "That's about it." Like most people living there, he had no memory of what had been obliterated.
The nearness of wild desert to the city was our Pennsylvania Station. My friends and I would go target-shooting where "Troon" and other exclusive north Scottsdale properties now lie. Nobody was around. Taliesin West was isolated by miles of nothing. Bell Road was two lanes through the desert. Shea "Boulevard" was the same (you can still see it as it was in the 1973 movie Electra Glide in Blue). The Superstitions were true wilderness, breathtaking and dangerous. Lost. Included in these serial acts of destruction was bulldozing a saguaro forest to make room for Fountain Hills. A few years ago, an East Valley leader said of the desecration of the Superstitions, "Yeah, that kind of got away from us." Just a shrug. No regret. Too many fast bucks were made on the boobs from the Midwest who would put up with anything, anything, so long as they got hot weather and sunshine.
By no means all, but too many of these newcomers persuaded themselves that Phoenix had no history, nothing worth preserving. They weren't interested in how many saguaros or Hohokam ruins were bladed to make their subdivision, weren't curious that the Hohokam achieved one of the most advanced hydrological civilizations of the Americas (or the ancient world). Would that knowledge have given them pause. Or did it even matter. This wasn't home. One didn't do these things to home.
The environment built by humans was not immune. Thousands of bungalows, Spanish colonials and other houses designed with individual care were lost to the Papago Freeway, the tear-downs that followed upzoning on the Central Corridor and then the city's own land clearance program, especially of territorial-era buildings and Victorians between Seventh Avenue and the capitol. Imagine the city that would exist if these houses had been cared for and treasured. Haciendas proliferated around the edges of the old city, as well as north on Central. I remember in the early '70s, the Scottsdale Schools used a handsome two-story home surrounded by groves around 44th Street and Osborn for an office. Nobody thought to preserve it.
The Fox Theater, which was torn down for a homely city bus terminal.
The multi-story red sandstone office building at First and Washington was demolished to make room for a hideous bank box erected in a dozen other cities. The Fox Theater. The Palms Theater. The old YMCA, old Federal Building, old First Methodist Church. The block of territorial commercial buildings between Central and First Avenue, Washington and Jefferson. Dozens of distinctive buildings in the produce district. The neon magic of the motel avenues. All lost. Then, the careless add-on vandalism exemplified by the prison-like executive office tower looming over the formerly perfect proportions of the state capitol building. Or ripping out the beautiful shade trees and grass surrounding the 1929 City Hall/Maricopa County Courthouse. Turning the Westward Ho (barely) into Section 8 housing where other cities would have refurbished it as a cherished historic hotel.
I've never lived in a city that sold so much of its birthright for stucco-covered crap.
The losses are too much to contemplate for long, but this is one of your chief inheritances if you are a Phoenician of a certain age and temperament. If you try to discuss the casualties of Phoenix-style urbanization, you will be denounced for "hating Arizona," often by the same people who profited from profaning this magical place.
Yes, things could be worse. Stubborn perseverance by homeowners and political leadership saved what are now the historic districts of Roosevelt, F.Q. Story, Encanto-Palmcroft and Willo. They were very close to going the way of the vanished or slumized neighborhoods mentioned earlier. When I returned to Phoenix, we invested in preserving the 1914 A.C. Redewill House (including adding a National Register plaque), just as the previous owner had done, knowing in the time this house deserved we were merely passing through. We had to sell it when I was run out of town but found a like-minded couple. Elsewhere, in north central and Arcadia, money preserved these beautiful oasis districts. Yet even here, Arcadia is fighting rebuilds that take away views and the old north central acreages have nearly vanished. The beautiful mission-style Union Station lacks iron-clad protection; much less is it being prepared for new rail service. It is privately owned (used to be by Sprint), housing telecom equipment and surrounded by a fence.
At one time, Phoenix did have some stewards of the kind that cities such as Seattle benefit from today. The Heards donated the house that became the famed museum, as well as property for the first Phoenix Civic Center. Gertrude Webster made the Desert Botanical Garden possible. Phoenix purchased and saved South Mountain Park and most of Papago Park. And unlike efforts in north Scottsdale and far north Phoenix, these were not exclusionary by class or distance.
If saving this Frank Lloyd Wright house starts something, it would mark a happy turning point. Indeed, a revolution. Willo, for example, survived to be reborn as one of the most desirable (and real) neighborhoods because the Real Estate Industrial Complex had no use for it. Arizona developers don't do preservation. It might set a bad example. "Property rights," don't you know. Meaning: Short-term profits in a throw-away "community." Faced with this in a place we love, the only emotion more powerful than rage is sadness. Time to fight. Too much remains at risk.
EPILOGUE I: A century-old store that is all remaining of the little farm village of Higley will be torn down. Nothing must stand in the way of the six- and eight-lane "streets" of metro Phoenix.
Want to know more about Phoenix history? Read the Phoenix 101 Archive.