Part One of a Three-Day Series
Photographer Mark Bennett is recording Gilbert's disappearing act. The town has commissioned him to visually document its rapidly changing landscape.
Gilbert’s population recently topped 175,000 — from fewer than 30,000 about 15 years ago — and is increasing by as many as 1,000 monthly.
Bennett’s assignment is to capture vanishing images of the town’s past as a quiet rural enclave amid the fevered transition into bustling suburbia.
Dirt is being turned just about everywhere. Along with construction of the Santan Freeway stretch of Loop 202 through the town, residential subdivisions, retail centers, hospitals and office buildings are replacing agricultural tracts.
Such fast-paced development and redevelopment throughout the East Valley is sparking a sense of urgency for communities to preserve their historical roots.
For more than four decades, “the story of the Valley has been about growth and more growth, and the mind-set has been that new is always better than old. We’ve had a tear-down mentality,” said Debbie Abele, Scottsdale’s historic preservation officer.
The result has been that many old schools, marketplaces, government buildings, churches, homes and neighborhoods that played parts in local history have routinely fallen to the wrecking ball.
Demolition of Scottsdale High School in 1991 for private development spurred the city to begin its historic-preservation efforts, Abele said. The 1920s-era building, with its stately white pillars, surely would have qualified for the city’s historic register and possibly the National Register of Historic Places.
Private redevelopment in Tempe led to demolition seven years ago of the Miller Block property, a well-preserved commercial building built in 1900. The downtown complex at Fifth Street and Mill Avenue once housed operations of some of the prominent entrepreneurs who established the original Tempe town center.
About 10 years ago, private owners also tore down the Rohrig School, built in 1898, the last remaining rural-style school in Tempe, named after prominent rancher and farmer William Rohrig.
PRESERVING THE PAST
The demolition trend gradually has been swinging a little in the opposite direction. Significant vestiges of local heritage remain threatened, but in the past decade historic preservation efforts have taken hold in most communities.
In that time, Mesa, Tempe and Scottsdale have adopted ordinances that allow historic preservation zoning and established historic preservation boards and local historic registers.
Tempe’s program started 10 years ago “specifically as a response to a wave of downtown redevelopment,” said Joe Nucci, the city’s historic preservation officer. “We realized we needed to get some control of this or we would lose a lot of historically important properties to growth.”
Mesa has designated six historic districts since 1995. Five are on the National Register of Historic Places. Scottsdale has two historic districts. Tempe has one. Each city plans to add several more in the next few years.
The cities also have put dozens of properties on their local registers and helped get many of them on the national register.
In Scottsdale, where downtown development is booming, the city is focusing on buildings that played a role in the town’s settlement and others that were significant in Scottsdale’s evolution as a major tourist destination and arts community. For example, Taliesin West, the winter home and architecture campus of the late Frank Lloyd Wright, who built it in 1937, is seeking historic protection with help from the city.
Since adopting its historic preservation ordinance in 1999, Scottsdale’s program has moved rapidly, putting 15 properties on its historic register. It’s also one of a few cities in the country to adopt its own archaeological preservation ordinance and plans to designate a number of archaeological sites on the register.
NEW EFFORTS ABOUND
Chandler, Gilbert and Queen Creek don’t have formal programs, but each is taking notable steps to pave the way to expand preservation.
Chandler’s downtown business district — featuring the nearly century-old San Marcos golf resort hotel — is on the national register.
Dorothy Ruoff and Mary Lou Perkins are pushing for historic designation for their neighborhood near Chandler’s town center.
They’re hoping that if they are successful it will spur city officials to organize a commission to pursue more projects.
Two years ago, Chandler hired Jean Reynolds as its first public history coordinator to organize programs celebrating local heritage.
The city also is preserving some of the old farmhouses on land it has acquired for parks, and officials plan to assemble historical exhibits in some of the buildings.
The former Gilbert Elementary School — now the Gilbert Historical Museum — is on the national register. In addition, the town plans to establish a heritage district theme in its downtown redevelopment area. It’s to include restoration of a number of buildings to reflect Gilbert’s early smalltown character.
The town wants to build a small park around the site of the town’s first water tower and old adobe jailhouse and is looking at other older properties that can be refurbished and showcased, said deputy town manager Tami Ryall.
Queen Creek’s Rittenhouse School, built in 1925, is the town’s only property with a national historic designation.
The San Tan Historical Society, which operates a museum in the building, is working to identify a few more properties that could be eligible for historic designation, said president Dave Salge.
“We are racing against development. Our farm families are selling to developers almost daily,” Salge said.
Despite the progress, preservation can’t keep up with the East Valley’s growth, and fiscal belttightening in some municipalities threatens to slow them further.
Mesa’s situation is particularly pressing. With the city facing a projected budget shortfall of more than $35 million, historic preservation won’t be a high priority any time soon.
Lack of funds likely will hinder efforts to protect some significant properties, preservation supporters said.
Mesa preservation supporters are concerned that the oldest remaining home in the city, built in the 1890s, could be threatened. The home in the Lehi area in the north part of the city is unoccupied and leased by a private owner to a business. Some have talked about buying and renovating it to use as an interpretive center for the Mesa Historical Museum, which is across the street from the house.
Such an effort would be difficult without government support, said Victor Linoff, who led the city’s historic preservation committee for 11 years before his term ended earlier this year.
“It’s troubling because Mesa’s program has been a model. It’s way ahead of other cities that began (preservation efforts) at about the same time. Now it may fall way behind,” Linoff said.
Tempe officials and activists have been trying for years to come up with viable plans to renovate the towering Hayden Flour Mill, but funding has always stopped them short.
Rehabilitation of the aging buildings on the mill site near Tempe Town Lake is being held up by a legal dispute. The city took back control of the site after lack of progress by a private company that was contracted to redevelop it. The developer is challenging the city’s action.
The lack of local government resources might be counterbalanced by a groundswell of grassroots support spurred by Tempe, Mesa and Scottsdale’s preservation achievements in recent years, said Linoff, a Mesa Historical Society board member. He also has owned a business in downtown Tempe for more than 30 years and has been promoting preservation there as well.
Linoff points, for example, to the formation earlier this year of the Tempe Historical Preservation Foundation. The nonprofit group led by some of Tempe’s longtime neighborhood activists will lobby the city to step up preservation, said Darlene Justus, one of the directors. Among its top focuses will be urging officials to end years of uncertainty about the mill, considered one of the Valley’s leading landmarks.
The foundation also is hoping it can raise money to help the city with preservation endeavors. Already it has acquired two wooden cabins that once housed German soldiers and sailors in a World War II prison camp in Papago Park. Funds are being gathered to restore the buildings and make them part of a historical exhibit.
The group also plans to launch an education program to make residents aware of the benefits of establishing historic neighborhoods.
The message should be wellreceived, said Barbara Sherman, a foundation director and former Tempe City Council member.
“I think this is a good time to promote historic preservation because so many people who have lived here a long time are seeing how fast growth is changing things and what we are losing from our past,” she said.
“It’s a sign of maturity when a city decides it’s important to save its local culture, and I think people are ready to take ownership of their communities and get involved.”