Whether it’s a toaster, sports car or relationship, there often comes a time to decide whether to fix it or junk it. This tipping point also applies to the rehabilitation of historical buildings – a particularly sensitive topic in Phoenix, where historical landmarks are scant, and where recent demos have raised a troubling question. “What’s the impact if an owner neglected the property intentionally?” asks Michelle Dodds, the city’s historic preservation officer.
This question was spotlighted in 2020 when the city’s second-oldest commercial structure, the 1889 Steinegger Building, was torn down. The three-story building at 27 East Monroe Street was listed on the National Register of Historic Places but not on the Phoenix Register of Historic Places, which granted it demolition protection. The building’s owners convinced the city’s historic preservation commission that it was structurally unsound, which led to the approval for demolition by a 4-3 vote. Preservationists claimed that the owner knowingly deferred maintenance on a sinkhole underneath the west side of the building in order to raze it. A year after demolition of the building, the property remains vacant.
The Phoenix Historic Preservation Commission, wary of owners who assert their buildings should be demolished because they’re in bad shape, has initiated a study of willful neglect. “All historic buildings take work,” Dodds says. “It’s a complicated issue that’s difficult to prove, and there are many variables, but money is always the bottom line.”
According to architect Robert Graham, owner of the historic preservation firm Motley Design Group, the community needs to identify these neglected buildings better and be more proactive with their owners, so recent history doesn’t repeat itself. “We live in a strong property-rights state, so there is only so much you can do to prevent an owner from letting their building go to pieces,” he says. “It may be that we need more ‘carrots’ so that there will be a financial motivation for preservation.”
Phoenix’s Risky Buildings
St. James Hotel
Constructed at Madison and First streets in 1928 to serve traveling businessmen, the hotel evolved to house low-income residents until closing around 2000. The hotel, along with the adjacent Madison Hotel, was purchased by Suns Legacy Partners, which demolished both buildings in 2012. However, the façade and lobby of the St. James Hotel were saved, only to be demolished for new VIP parking in August 2021.
Luke-Greenway American Legion Post No. 1
This post was established in 1919, and has been operating at the property, located off Seventh Avenue between Polk Street and Grand Avenue, under a long-term lease with the city. The future of the single-story building could be in jeopardy with some proposed redevelopment plans to add 92 multi-family residential units to the property.
One of Arizona’s most renowned nightclubs opened on Grand Avenue just north of Indian School Road in 1966. Waylon Jennings, Glen Campbell, Charley Pride and Kenny Chesney performed at the club, famous for its all-you-can-eat fish fry and rodeo performances in its parking lot. Unfortunately, after a bumpy few years, it closed in 2009. Currently for lease, the club and its oversized court jester sign designed by Glen Guyette face an uncertain future.