The interior courtyard of the Tovrea Mansion in happier days. (Steve Weiss photo).
A reader from Michigan wrote, "My wife and I were married at the Tovrea Mansion in 2000 (on today in fact — 6 Oct.). Not the Castle, but the mansion on 46th Street and Van Buren. We went back to see the building last week and found it abandoned, looted, and partially destroyed."
Almost everyone in Phoenix who pays attention knows about the Tovrea Castle and its storied past. The unique building was saved thanks to the city and a preservation effort led by former Mayor John Driggs. Amazingly, a number of loud voices opposed this and wanted the building demolished, the saguaros bladed.
The Tovrea Mansion was not so fortunate. A large ranch house surrounded by tall oleanders and palm trees, it was unknown by most Phoenicians. The pioneer Tovrea family lived there for decades. By the 2000s, it had been turned into an events center.
As with many things, I discovered the mansion when I was on the ambulance and responded to a call there. I was amazed at its beauty and peacefulness, especially considering that it had been surrounded by the Tovrea feedlots — at one time among the largest in the country — towering slaughterhouses and meat packing buildings, as well as sidings for the Southern Pacific Railroad when cattle and beef were transported by rail.
The mansion can't be appreciated without this context. Into the 1970s, Phoenix and Tempe were separated by the large footprint of the cattle industry. The Stockyards Restaurant, still a little treasure of history, was built amid actual stockyards.
The stench could be overwhelming. But this was an important part of the Valley's agricultural sector, one that provided jobs and exported "value added" food products to the country. Back then Phoenix could feed itself, no dependence on a 10,000-mile supply chain. Aside from being a Pullman porter, working at Cudahay Packing was one of the few avenues for a good job for African-Americans.
Then, as one traveled west, Van Buren became one of the city's inviting neon gateways with small, enchanting "auto courts" and motels that would have made for distinctive artists' housing, cool retro lodging, and startup havens if only they had been preserved — not singly, but within their physical context. But history doesn't forgive "if only."
I log in this casualty for the few, outside of the preservationists and members of the Resistance, who will care. The few who are not besotted by sun, north Scottsdale, the "Price Corridor," and championship golf. For us, these losses are not lazy nostalgia. These seeming little pieces were in fact among the hundreds of things that made Phoenix a place we loved.
As a friend wrote, "In that grief, for me, is the grief of the transition from civic responsibility to the lionization of greed and materialism. Sometimes my grief over this is physically painful and triggers my grief over the loss of so many people, now dead, that would be appalled by what the city has become."
Riding light rail (WBIYB) east of downtown, I keep imagining a project that would document the amazing variety of buildings that remain — such as amazing territorial-era apartments near 14th Street and Washington — and the ones that are mostly gone. These range from humble homesteads in an area where minorities could buy property in Phoenix's segregation era to industries. For example, the large bakery where Jefferson curves (we went there on a school field trip) is gone, leaving empty land.
Emptiness is what distinguishes so much of this district of the city (and so many other parts). I've lived in cities around the country and can't think of one that has so clear cut its urban fabric, not merely buildings but the connective tissue. You see, Phoenix used to fit together, not just be a collection of vacant land and tilt-up ugliness. It had charm and beauty, character and bones, many of them good if modest.
The Tovrea Mansion was one of them. And so many more, gone.
Read more about Phoenix's remarkable past, and how it still echoes, in Rogue's history archive.