This fall, House of Tricks turns 30. But the Tempe restaurant houses a century of local history.

Tricky Business

Written by Keridwen Cornelius Category: History Issue: September 2017
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Robin Trick washing a window. Photo courtesy of House of Tricks.
Robert Trick and assistant chef Jeff Horsch, circa 1990s. Photo courtesy of House of Tricks.
A registered historical landmark, the Harry Walker House now houses the Tricks’ Wine Cellar. Photo courtesy National Register of Historic Places Collection.
Opening day of House of Tricks in September 1987. Photo courtesy of House of Tricks.

Robin and Robert Trick’s friends thought they were crazy. The Tricks, who had met and married while working at Tempe pub Bandersnatch, were launching their own restaurant and catering business. But instead of renting a shiny storefront on Mill Avenue, they were eyeing a 67-year-old single-family home on a run-down, residential side street. 

“People said, ‘You’re going to go on Seventh Street? Nobody even walks up Seventh Street. Why would you go there? You’re not going to get any business,’” Robin recalls. But rent on Mill Avenue cost $3,000 a month, which in 1987 was not small potatoes. Whereas the rent in that cramped, kitchenless bungalow being used as a blueprint shop they were eyeing was $1,000. As it turned out, that was fortuitous.
“Probably the best thing that ever happened was not getting the space on Mill Avenue, because we never could have done this there,” Robin says, looking around House of Tricks, where the beloved patio is so verdant with jacaranda, flowers and sissoo trees, it’s almost its own ecosystem. One wonders what the Seventh Street skeptics would say now that the restaurant is celebrating its 30th anniversary in September (see sidebar).

Today, House of Tricks encompasses the original 1920 bungalow and a 1903 home next door. Between them, these houses hold a cat’s cradle of historical connections. Follow these crisscrossing footnotes, and you can string together the evolution of Tempe – from the turn of the century to today. 

The first string leads to a seamstress named Elizabeth Manley. In 1902, Manley moved into a house just west of the future restaurant. At the time, “West Tempe” was a spanking new neighborhood, while Mill Avenue and environs were dirt. Tempe’s population was about 900. The fledgling town had only been founded in 1871, when Charles T. Hayden established a store and freighting headquarters on the Salt River. In 1879, Darrell Duppa, who co-founded and named Phoenix, was so enchanted by the river and laurel-green fields he named the settlement after the Vale of Tempe in ancient Greece.

In 1920, Manley paid crews to build her a second home, right next door at 114 E. Seventh Street. It was called Manley House or Manley Rental Cottage, since the widow took advantage of Tempe’s housing shortage and rented it out. The very uneventfulness of Manley’s life gives you a flavor for young, sleepy Tempe. In 1902, the Arizona Republic’s Tempe news section reported that “Mrs. Elizabeth Manley, who has been ill for several days past, is improving.” The pace hadn’t picked up much by 1930, when Republic readers were treated to two back-to-back headlines: “Mrs. Manley Ill,” and “Mrs. Manley Better.”

One can only imagine how often Mrs. Manley knocked on the door of Dr. Benjamin Moeur, Tempe’s only full-time physician, who lived just steps away. But perhaps Moeur treated her with patience, since he was known as a big-hearted man who never charged widows or preachers. His magnanimity no doubt led to his election as governor of Arizona in 1932, buoyed by campaign expenses of just $75.80. He served as governor until 1937 and died later that year in the same 1892 cream-and-green cottage, which currently houses the Tempe Community Council.

In 1934, Manley House was sold to Helen C. Roberts, superintendent at Arizona State Teachers College Training School. She, in turn, rented the cottage to Mary Bunte, Grady Gammage’s secretary. 
Robin Trick loves this tie to Gammage Auditorium. “When Gammage shows are in town, we have a lot of business, and a lot of the Gammage staff are really good customers of ours,” she says. “It’s interesting that we have this big connection with Grady Gammage.”

Gammage served as the ninth president of Arizona State University, from 1933 to 1959. It was a time of enormous change for Tempe. From 1930 to 1960, the population multiplied tenfold, reaching 24,897. The school, too, was evolving. Founded in 1885 on a 20-acre cow pasture, it was originally called the Territorial Normal School (the term for a teacher training college). After that, the school changed its name five times by 1925, when Bunte – fresh out of high school – typed up the bill that converted the normal school into a four-year state college. 

During his presidency, Gammage and the majority of students fought to transform the college into a university, sparking community protests and even an incident where someone burned an anti-university slogan into the football field. But Gammage and the students persisted, and the school became Arizona State University in 1958.

The ASU connection threads back, in our figurative cat’s cradle, to the story of House of Tricks. 

By the 1990s, the restaurant was bursting at the seams inside Manley House. They had no bar and stored liquor on a bookshelf. The staff made cocktails on Robin’s desk in her “office” sardined next to the dishwasher. So when their landlord retired, the Tricks purchased the adjacent house east of the property. It was called the Harry Walker House, named after its former resident, the groundskeeper at Arizona State University (then Tempe Normal School). And it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Built in 1903, the Neo-Colonial and Georgian Revival dwelling is characteristic of a modest working-class family home at the turn of the century. It’s built of adobe that’s much sturdier than the Manley House. In fact, it’s so sturdy that when a burglar attempted to raid House of Tricks’ wine cellar in 2013, a police officer shot at him through the walls, but the bullet plugged in the adobe. You can still see the hole, shattering a framed sketch of the bar.

Little is known about Harry Walker, except that he left groundskeeping to work as an engineer on the Santa Fe Railroad. But it’s likely he’d admire the work of the property’s current gardener, Mary Trick, age 80. Robert Trick’s mother has worked at the restaurant since the ’90s and waters, repots and designs every plant on the patio.

The architects who owned the homes before the Tricks would also admire the couple’s preservation efforts. The homey buildings may hold a century of history, but they weren’t built to withstand multi-thousand-pound equipment, or 500 people a day walking over the creaky wooden floors. House of Tricks closes every July so Robert and a crew can “put these places back together,” Robin says. “Our biggest challenge is keeping these places standing. [Being in historic homes] is a cute idea, and it works well visually, but don’t lean too hard on the walls.”

Party Tricks
To honor its 30th anniversary, House of Tricks will run daily specials from past menus throughout September. On November 5, when the weather cools, they’ll throw a cocktail party with hors d’oeuvres, music and maybe dancing.