The mass destruction is part of an adaptive reuse plan from builders Jon Kitchell and Lorenzo Perez of Venue Projects, who are working with architect John Douglas to give the structure a facelift. Following in the footsteps of Federal Pizza, The Yard, and Windsor, the building is the latest in a series of Downtown Phoenix fill-ins that preserve a piece of the past while allowing for modern development. Christened “The Newton” and tentatively set to open in the spring of 2014, the redesigned space will house an outpost of Changing Hands Bookstore, The Lively Hood cooperative workspace, and Chef Justin Beckett’s Southern Rail restaurant. “We’re saving the soul and the story of the building,” Kitchell says. As part of the project, he and Perez plan to create an online repository for locals to share their memories of the original Beef Eaters.
Jay Newton opened his “pride and joy” in 1961. After four decades of serving Chateaubriand and tableside Caesars, Newton was so eager to find a successor that he offered to give Beef Eaters away via a New York Times essay contest in 2001. No victor was crowned, and Beef Eaters folded shortly after Newton’s death in 2006. The threat of the wrecking ball loomed over the decaying husk of the prime rib palace in the years that followed. Hundreds of potential investors toured the property, including owners of a drug store chain and a church. Most planned a complete tear-down and rebuild.
Kitchell and Perez first surveyed the restaurant after Changing Hands co-owner Cindy Dach approached them in mid-2011 seeking a historic location along the light rail. Their roller coaster ride began with a startling tour of Beef Eaters’ innards. According to Kitchell, the back of the house was a nightmare. “It was on its way to becoming a second Blair Witch Project,” he quips. Pigeons roosted in the eaves. Squatters burned wooden chairs in the fireplace. Taggers spray-painted the walls.
While most tenants would have run screaming, Dach saw potential in the dining room, with its cozy leather booths and racks of intact wine goblets. “Much of the space was still in good shape and nearly ready for dinner service,” she recalls. “You could feel the history and knew that it had been an important gathering space.” As Phoenix’s real estate market cooled, Venue Projects’ $950,000 offer on Beef Eaters was accepted. Things began to click. Kitchell and Perez sourced partial funding from a local bank and initiated the search for Changing Hands’ new neighbors.
As Dach was planning shelves of eclectic books and artisanal goods, Venue’s deal with seller Tes Welborn was in jeopardy. The closing was set for June 2012. “I remember sitting in a hot parking lot at 4:45, having heat flashes. We had to close the deal by five,” Perez says. With his partner out of town and financing issues unresolved, Perez reluctantly killed the deal. But the pair never gave up on Beef Eaters. They gathered additional backers and in December 2012, four partners – Venue Projects, John Douglas Architects, Beckett’s Table and Changing Hands – went into escrow on the property at $100,000 less than Kitchell-Perez’s original offer.
The modern, streamlined Newton – with its floor-to-ceiling windows, trussed ceilings and mezzanine balcony – won’t resemble its predecessor. Beef Eaters’ rickety porte-cochère will be enclosed and its small basement utilized for book storage and office space. The fireplaces will be framed with vintage Queen Creek adobe bricks. However, Beef Eaters fans will recognize small touches, like reupholstered half-round leather booths and original crystal chandeliers, in the 5,000-square-foot restaurant addition overlapping the former foundation of Jay Newton’s living quarters.
It’s difficult to summon nostalgia when viewing Beef Eaters’ desiccated carcass. Though the demolition seems extreme, preservation proponent Kimber Lanning of Local First Arizona suggests a wait-and-see approach. “Part of redevelopment is that wild card of not knowing for sure how badly a building is damaged when you buy it,” Lanning says. “If they couldn’t save the roof, it’s sad, but they can rebuild it sensitively... I think the neighbors will be pleasantly surprised.”
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