If this photo shows a busy little city from the Roaring Twenties, that's exactly what you found in Phoenix during this transformative decade. Town to city, horses to cars, less Wild West and more sophistication — Phoenix had been moving this way for years. But in the 1920s, they became solidly entrenched — even Town Ditch was covered. The first "skyscraper," the seven-story Heard Building, right, opened in 1920. By the end of the decade, it had several taller and more impressive siblings that remain some of the city's most treasured and beautiful buildings. Central Methodist Church (ME South) on the near right would move to a handsome new structure at Central and Pierce.
The nation entered the decade with Woodrow Wilson as president. But he was incapacitated by a stroke and his wife, Edith, was protecting him from most visitors and essentially carrying out most of his executive duties. America was disillusioned by the outcome of the Great War, the Palmer Raids and the "Red Scare," what was seen as Wilson's overreaching, and two decades of the Progressive Era. Voters (including women, for the first time) eagerly embraced Ohio's Warren G. Harding as the next president. He promised a "return to normalcy," forever wrecking the correct word "normality." Harding freed the Socialist Eugene Debs, who Wilson had imprisoned for opposing American involvement in the war.
The Great War had brought changes to the Salt River Valley, especially with the booming demand for cotton. By 1920, it had turned into a bust and Phoenix was suffering through the national recession. Things would soon turn around as the economy expanded and America embarked on, as F. Scott Fitzgerald put it, "the greatest, gaudiest spree in history." It was the Jazz Age, with the experiment of Prohibition sidestepped with speakeasies. Prohibition was hardly observed at all in the non-Mormon towns of the West. In Phoenix, bars, borthels, and gambling dens operated in the open, sometimes making payoffs to the city. This wide-open environment soon attracted the Mafia, including Al Capone.
The Phoenix of the 1920s was expanding out of the half-mile footprint of the original township. In the previous decade, the city had surpassed Tucson to become the most populous place in Arizona. With more than 29,000 people in 1920, Phoenix would grow nearly 66 percent over the next 10 years. Residential neighborhoods expanded a half mile north of McDowell, west of the Santa Fe tracks at 19th Avenue, and east as far as 16th Street. These were gradually incorporated into the city limits, which expanded from five square miles in 1920 to 6.5 square miles a decade later.
The mansions of "Millionaire's Row" still graced Monroe Street, but the central business district was moving north. Elegant bungalows lined the streets north of Van Buren into the fancy new Kenilworth District north of Roosevelt Street and eventually the Period Revival neighborhoods just beyond McDowell, including Palmcroft. Many of these were reachable by the streetcars.
Phoenix remained dependent on the vast, verdant agricultural empire made possible by Theodore Roosevelt Dam. Others followed: Mormon Flat in 1925, Horse Mesa in 1927, and Stewart Mountain Dam in 1930. Around 360,000 acres were under cultivation. The canals and laterals that laced the Valley were lined with shady trees and provided swimming for residents who lacked air conditioning. Thanks in no small part to the federal subsidies for water, Valley farmers avoided the stealth agricultural recession that stalked much of the nation during the decade. But 1920 marked the first time the Census had more people living in cities and towns than on farms. Business expanded as Phoenix became the center for the state's retail, wholesale, distribution, banking, insurance and small manufacturing sectors.
Beyond these boosts, the most significant event of the decade was the 1926 completion of the Southern Pacific Railroad's northern main line through Phoenix. Before this, the city was only reached by branch lines from the south and north. Awaiting it was the impressive Mission-style Union Station, completed three years earlier. The SP routed all but one of its transcontinental passenger trains to the northern line and Phoenix's isolation was wiped away. The promotion of tourism became a top priority for local boosters. But the main line, in addition to two rail links to the north on the Santa Fe, were essential for Salt River Valley farmers to send their products to the nation.
The decade is remembered for its building boom. America was a net creditor to the world and capital was abundant. This was combined with the zenith of great architecture and civic planning. The Luhrs family began a new level of ambition with the Luhrs Building in 1924, which housed the exclusive Arizona Club. It was originally planned to be a much larger structure. Four years later, the Security Building, Hotel San Carlos, and Hotel Westward Ho ("way out" on Central Avenue and Fillmore Street) opened. The Art Deco masterpieces of the Professional Building and Luhrs Tower came in 1929 and 1932, respectively (the Professional Building was conceived in the '20s).
Phoenix City Hall was an aging structure on Block 23 of the original townsite, a block reserved for a public park. Meanwhile, the 1884 Maricopa County Courthouse on west Washington was hardly capable of keeping up with a growing county and a fire hazard to boot. The city commissioners and county supervisors, backed by the Chamber of Commerce, pushed a bond issue for a new joint building. It was passed overwhelmingly. The result was the majestic new city-county building at First Avenue and Washington. It occupied a full city block and was surrounded by a shady, grass-covered park (Encanto Park wouldn't come until the 1930s). Designed by Edward Neild and the firms of Lescher & Mahoney and Edwards, Wildey and Dixon, the six-story building remains iconic inside and out (it's where my fictional detective David Mapstone has his office). Lescher & Mahoney are responsible for the Phoenix City Hall side of the building, including the striking Phoenix birds rising up on either side of the entrance. When it opened in 1929, the ceremony included John Philip Sousa conducting the Marine Corps Band.
Block 23 never reverted to its purpose as a park. Commercial buildings went up instead, most spectacularly the air-conditioned Fox Theater, which finally opened in 1931. The Orpheum Theater, another Lescher & Mahoney gem, opened in 1927. The '20s were the first decade that saw the revolution of air conditioning, although only in the newest and most expensive buildings.
Yet another architectural stunner opened in Mesa in 1927: the Arizona Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mesa's population was about 3,000.
The city's Southern roots remained strong, even with Dwight Heard of Chicago as the richest and most influential man in town. A soft (compared to the Deep South) segregation kept many stores and restaurants off limits, or with limited access, to minorities. They were not allowed to buy property north of Van Buren. Segregation also extended to schools, especially for African-Americans. For example, the Phoenix Union Colored High School (later Carver High) opened in 1926.
Blacks, Mexicans, and Chinese founded their own small businesses, benevolent associations, newspapers and churches. Hispanics consecrated the beautiful Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in 1929. Minority realtors and developers, such as African-American Marshall Shelton, operated, too. Phoenix's small Chinatown was on east Second Street downtown, but many minority neighborhoods and barrios were outside the city limits (for example, Hispanics made up only 8 percent of the city population in 1920, but many more lived in county areas). Japanese farmers began to trickle in from California, successfully farming some of the toughest spots in the Valley and incurring special hostility from some Anglos. Some progress was made: the first "colored" police officers were on the job at the Phoenix Police Department. The geographic boundaries also started to give way as a small number of well-off Latino families purchased homes in the Garfield district/
Beyond the new city-county building, major civic projects were limited. Phoenix Junior College opened on Sept. 13th, 1920. The first classes were held in three small cottages near the Phoenix Union High School. The future Phoenix College's first football team was formed in 1922, the same year as its inaugural graduating class. Tempe Normal School (it would become Arizona State Teachers College by the end of the decade) was far away for Phoenix students. As Phoenix grew, and unlike every other big city, it failed to attract a major university or liberal arts colleges.
That, and much else, might have been different if Phoenix could have continued its trajectory without breaking stride. But it was not to be. In 1929, both Heard and department store owner Baron Goldwater died. In October the stock market crashed and it didn't take long for very hard times to hit the city.
Gallery — Phoenix in the 1920s:
Phoenix City Hall in 1922, at First Street and Washington. Note the streetcar tracks in front. This is block 23 of the original townsite, set aside for civic purposes. Later it was the location of the Fox Theater and JC Penney. As of 2017, after sitting as a parking lot for years, it is going to be a new development with a Fry's supermarket.
A representative view of the oasis that was Phoenix.
A view from the future Biltmore area of the Arizona Canal and Camelback Mountain.
The city adopted its first flag in 1921, a far cry from today's Joe Cool Phoenix Bird flag.
An even grander Luhrs Building was proposed, but never built.
A busy Central Avenue in 1921. A little more than a decade later, the Valley Bank would move to much grander space in the new Professional Building.
A trackside view of a new Phoenix Union Station. (McCulloch Brothers/ASU Archives)
Deco Glory: The Luhrs Tower at First Avenue and Jefferson Street. Both of these classics are still standing, as is Union Station. (McCulloch Brothers/ASU Archives).
This circa 1970 view of the Maricopa County Courthouse side of the city-county building shows its timeless architectural appeal. On the top floor was the jail. It's also a good view at some of the changes to the Phoenix skyline in the 1920s. The lovely cooling park around it has since been torn out for dirt, concrete, and skeleton trees. The Swilling Fountain remains.
My book, A Brief History of Phoenix, is available to buy or order at your local independent bookstore, or from Amazon.
Read more Phoenix history in Rogue's Phoenix 101 archive.