Westward Hope

Leah LeMoineAugust 1, 2015
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With a helping hand from ASU, Downtown Phoenix’s iconic Westward Ho is poised to emerge from self-exile. Are brighter days ahead?

For a while there, it seemed like we’d lost the Westward Ho.

From its opening in 1928 to its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, the grand Hotel Westward Ho was a sparkling jewel in the crown of Downtown Phoenix. Its distinctive Spanish Colonial architecture and 240-foot steel tower with 40-foot antenna were defining additions to the Phoenix skyline during our metamorphosis from town to city (see Future Phoenix, pg. 94). Celebrity and politico guests added to the incandescence, and the hotel was the hub of Phoenix high society for decades. The music stopped in 1980, when the hotel closed and the new owners converted the building to low-income, subsidized housing for seniors and the mobility-impaired. The Ho’s once wide-open doors inviting Phoenicians in to make merry in its gilded ballrooms swung tightly shut to protect the privacy of its new occupants. Visitors were hawkishly monitored. Journalists were verboten. A somber mist of secrecy seemed to settle over the 16-floor building.

“What lots of people have said, with a little bit of a melancholy in their eyes, is that they remember these things and think about them wistfully every time they see the Westward Ho, but it’s faded a bit,” says Dr. Jonathan Koppell, dean of Arizona State University’s College of Public Service and Community Solutions. Koppell and Dr. Michael Shafer, a professor of social work and director of the ASU Center for Applied Behavioral Health Policy, are part of a new ASU partnership with the current owners of the Westward Ho, Rhode Island-based developers and property managers PAG-CDC, to build a state-of-the-art clinic on the ground floor of the building. The clinic will be run by ASU students and staff and will provide residents with social services and basic medical assistance.

“Establishing an ASU presence within this historic landmark of our community is the embodiment of our university’s commitment to community embeddedness,” Shafer says in the university’s press release for the project.

It just might be the ticket to usher in a new era of openness and accessibility for the notoriously Fort Knox-like Westward Ho.

From Grand Hotel to HUD Housing
Phoenix lawyer and healthcare lobbyist Rory Hays says she practically grew up at the Westward Ho. Her father, Jack Hays, was an attorney and later an Arizona Supreme Court justice who attended Phoenix Rotary 100 Club meetings at the hotel. Her mother Priscilla served in the Arizona state legislature, and the Hayses rubbed elbows with Arizona Republic publisher Eugene Pulliam and his glamorous wife Nina at “what my mother would call ‘intimate dinners for 300,’” Hays says with a laugh. “I remember one: Hubert Humphrey was in town. They would have these parties at the Westward Ho in the Thunderbird Room. It was really one of the major social centers in the city of Phoenix.”

Even young socialites congregated at the Westward Ho. “The closest thing we had to debutantes in Phoenix was the St. Luke’s ball,” Hays says. “There was also a junior ball for the high school kids, and I remember going to a couple of St. Luke’s balls. If you go back and look in the archives of the Republic, especially the social section, every other occasion would probably be there at the Westward Ho.” As for Hays, her proudest Westward Ho moment came in 1964, when she won a rotary club speech contest in the Thunderbird Room.

Hays guesses the hotel started to deteriorate in the late 1960s and early 1970s. “What else was happening, particularly in Downtown Phoenix, that changed its position? New hotels with activities, other ballrooms and places to gather, and certainly the convention center,” she says. “All of the sudden it wasn’t the only game in town.”

Though Hays and her contemporaries were sad to see the hotel close, they were supportive of the building’s conversion to low-income, federally-subsidized housing through the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). “There are a lot of us that are glad that this reuse was developed because it saved the building in a very appropriate way,” Hays says. “It’s an appropriate use and [showed] sensitivity. If they had not come in and done that, I don’t know what would have happened to the building… I think people like old buildings. You don’t save everything, but it adds to the kind of ambiance. To me it makes you a grown-up city, when you care about your history.”

The new owners worked with the city to secure historical protection for the Ho, and the building was entered in the National Register of Historic places in 1982. Since then, the owners have done renovations and maintenance on the building and its residential units every 10 years or so. But it has remained closed to the inquiring minds of the general public. Journalists in particular have encountered Herculean obstacles to secure even an interview with a related party, let alone a tour or photographs. Many attempted to sneak in, but none were successful until Phoenix New Times’ Robrt Pela befriended Dennis McGarry, a retired railway chef and a Ho resident and historian. Pela’s 2011 piece about his tour was a coup.    

I personally have tried to make contact with the Westward Ho for three separate stories. I went about it the traditional journalist route – incessant phone calls and emails, which went unanswered. Until this time. The ASU partnership must have caused a sea change, because after a friendly barrage of emails and phone calls to Paul Atkinson, a sympathetic journalist-turned-PR-pro at ASU, and a 48-hour processing period for my visit request, I scored an official tour of the Ho. I didn’t get to venture into residents’ apartments, but I walked the shabbily-carpeted hallways, marveled at the Spanish-style courtyard and pool, and explored the Concho Room and ASU clinic construction sites. Little treasures emerged everywhere, from beautiful original tiles hidden under wood panels in the Concho Room to secret passageways and hidden doors to exposed fire-retardant bricks from the 1920s. I finally understood, firsthand, why the Westward Ho was so enigmatic.   

“I think that the biggest thing that people have been upset about is the fact that it used to be one of our most grand hotels in Arizona and now nobody’s even allowed in it,” says Ryan Tempest, co-founder with Quinn Whissen of This Could Be Phoenix, a community of creatives and entrepreneurs who create envisioning projects and educational blogs about urban living and the potential of Downtown Phoenix.

Whissen bristles when people get too impassioned in their desire to restore the icon to its original state. “One thing that I’m wary of is when people say, ‘Oh, it should be a hotel again.’ They actually forget that there’s 300 older – they could have been homeless – people living there,” Whissen says. “This is actually a really important thing in our city. It’s still an icon, regardless of what’s happening inside or not.”

The Old College Try
What’s happening inside will soon be changing, thanks to the ASU partnership. The school has already engaged with the federally-subsidized housing complex for a few years in various capacities, from weekly wellness check visits from nursing students to the occasional performance put on by dance students. The clinic, which is scheduled to open in late 2015, is upping the ante by providing a dedicated physical space and specialized services.

“We felt that we could do much more to work with our neighbors, take advantage of the proximity and do social good while creating opportunities for our students to learn and creating opportunities for our researchers to better understand solutions to the problems that we’re interested in,” Koppell says. “The opportunity for this win-win-win-win – I’ve lost track of the wins – but the opportunity was just sort of staring us in the face – literally staring us in the face every day when we would walk out the front door of our building.”

Concern for residents has been premium for the ASU project. Its researchers addressed a concern among the larger community about whether or not the residents were receiving adequate medical care. “Rather than us sort of dreaming up a project, it made more sense for us to do some research about the needs of the population first and then design around that,” Koppell says. “It turns out the population is reasonably well-served in terms of medical services.

“But in terms of what we call psycho-social services, a combination of counseling and provision of advice and social help and support and some light medical services, that’s really where the opportunity was… So we designed a program and we’re designing a physical space that’s flexible enough to allow us to do the things that meet the needs of the resident community.”

The clinic is being constructed in a stretch of the ground floor that faces Central Avenue. Phoenix Public Market Cafe and ASU’s Cronkite building are visible from its carefully restored historical windows. In the hotel days, the area was populated by retail shops selling Arizona souvenirs, a coffee shop and an informal dining area. ASU has also undertaken restoring the hotel’s legendary Concho Room, which was a fine-dining restaurant with a stage for performances. Koppell and Shafer envision ASU music and dance students doing performances for the residents in the room, which looks out onto the complex’s Seville-inspired courtyard and pool.

Koppell says the Concho Room will also host meetings, trainings, lectures and dialogues – “sort of the bread and butter of the College of Public Service and particularly the Center for Behavioral Health Policy,” he says. The school has also reached out to local community organizations and welcomed them to use the space.

“I’m the treasurer of the Roosevelt Action Association neighborhood group, and ASU came in to present their ideas and even offered to allow us to use one of their rooms for our community meetings,” Tempest says. “They’re definitely trying to open it up to the community as much as they can… It seems like everybody is really happy to get ASU in that space. They realize the benefit it’s going to have for the people there, the benefit it’s going to have on the community as a whole, and that it will be activating that ground floor and they will start to draw people in. It’ll break down that barrier between a low-income group of people and everyone else.”

Future, Ho!
For now, Koppell, Shafer and crew are focused on construction. And fundraising. “The university is bearing the expense of the renovation and bearing the expense of the lease,” Koppell says. “We are trying to raise funds and have formed the Friends of the Westward Ho Committee for those who are moved by the history of this building and moved by the social purpose.” More information can be found at asufoundation.org/westwardho

There might be more controversy coming up, says Debbie Abele, a private historic preservation consultant working with ASU on the project. In her former role as the City of Phoenix’s historic preservation officer, Abele worked with the Westward Ho in the early 2000s. Even then, she and her team worried that the day would come when someone would propose removing the aerial tower off the top of the building. “That was added more than 50 years ago, which means it gains [historical] significance in its own right,” Abele says. “Everybody decided that no matter what happened, if the tower came down, half of the community was going to become unglued. But the other half would be overjoyed that consider it a monstrosity. So there would be no winning with that.”

Some still wonder if the Ho will ever be rehabilitated as a hotel, or something with complete public access. The clinic and community rooms, while encouraging, are not exactly public domain. For all intents and purposes, the majority of the property will remain off-limits to the general public.

“It’s never going to be a fancy hotel again,” Abele says, articulating the sentiments of everyone interviewed for this piece. “It’s past its prime on that, and there are many others that have out-competed it, but it performs a good function as assisted housing.” Still, speculators can dream – surely the hotel’s founders never imagined its evolution into subsidized housing. The owners currently have no plans to reconceive the property, but the ASU clinic might be the epoch of many more decades of change.

Hays looks forward to increased visibility, awareness and access to the building. “The Ho’s been out of commission for so long that people don’t even know it’s there. They don’t know its history, they don’t know what it’s like inside because they can’t go inside, they don’t know what a deal this is.” She’s been lending her support to the ASU project after befriending Shafer on a trip to Africa two years ago.

“There’s kind of a nice symmetry. It’s a lovely building and it got saved and that’s fabulous, but now… it’s once again playing an important role as the city changes,” Hays says. “Part of Phoenix changing, in my view, a big deal was ASU moving Downtown. And guess who’s in the game. It’s the Westward Ho! The old girl’s back in town.”

Revamping the Ho
Exclusive behind-the-scenes shots from our tour of the Westward Ho’s redevelopment project:

Ready for its Close-Up
The mystique and mythology of the Westward Ho is further enhanced by its pop culture ties, both factual and fictitious. Here, a guide to film and TV scenes shot on the property – and one that definitely wasn’t.

PHM0815HT06Contrary to popular belief, the Ho was not the Downtown building where Marion Crane trysts with her lover in the opening shot of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 flick Psycho – that was the Hotel San Carlos down the street. However, the hotel was depicted in Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake of the seminal horror movie.

Several scenes in the 1972 Paul Newman and Lee Marvin vehicle Pocket Money were shot on the property, including the fourth story balcony, a hotel room, the lobby, patio, J wing stair and barbershop in the retail space now being transformed into the ASU clinic.

PHM 800x800 FPOWayne Newton famously returned to his adopted hometown of Phoenix because Jackie Gleason was recording his show in the Concho Room. It worked out: Gleason was impressed by Newton and his brothers, then performing as the Rascals in Rhythm, and they were booked on The Jackie Gleason Show in 1962.

PHM0815HT09Parade scenes from the 1956 Marilyn Monroe film Bus Stop were filmed in front of the Central Avenue entrance where the ASU clinic’s entrance will soon be.

Political Pop-Overs
In addition to movie stars and Phoenix’s movers and shakers, the Westward Ho has played host to a handful of notable politicians on the campaign trail and off.

In October 1960, Vice President Richard Nixon breakfasted at the Ho before giving a presidential stump speech in what was then the Turquoise Room, a popular wedding venue, on the second floor.

 The Phoenix Chamber of Commerce hosted then-actor Ronald Reagan for a speaking engagement in the Thunderbird Room, a 1,600-seat convention center (now gone) adjacent to the hotel, in May 1961.

 President John F. Kennedy visited with Senator Carl Hayden at a dinner honoring Hayden in November 1961.

More recently, Senator Ted Kennedy made a campaign stop at the Ho in support of presidential candidate John Kerry (now U.S. secretary of state) in January 2004. 

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