ONCE IT’S GONE ...
Part Three of a Three-Day Series
It’s a question Tempe Historical Museum curator John Akers hears occasionally from skeptical visitors: “What history does Tempe have?”
New York, Boston, Philadelphia — people readily accept the historical credentials of such cities with a few centuries worth of stories to tell.
They question how places such as Tempe, Scottsdale and other East Valley cities, where so much is new and under construction, can think they have real history to showcase.
“They think something can’t be historic unless it’s really old,” Akers said.
But experts are urging the preservation of what often is less than monumental or famous, and sometimes far from even a century old.
From suburban ranch-style homes in Scottsdale to a Mesa motel with hot spring baths and a wildlife museum, a flagpole at Mesa’s Williams Gateway Airport and an unusual former bank building in Tempe, communities are trying to save things that carry memories or signify key links in their evolution.
Neither age nor grand architecture necessarily make a building historic, said Ron Peters, vice chairman of Mesa’s Historic Preservation Committee and an architect specializing in building restoration.
What’s essential is whether a structure or site played a meaningful role in a
community’s origins or growth, or exemplifies something that shaped characterdefining traits or trends. Such sites often are relatively ordinary buildings, some only decades old, Peters said.
A significant building won’t become a venerated 200-year-old site if it’s ignored and left to decline when it’s only 50 years old, said Debbie Abele, Scottsdale historic preservation officer.
Abele and Scottsdale’s Historic Preservation Commission pressed that point during the process of designating the first historic neighborhoods in Scottsdale earlier this year.
The more than 300 homes in the Village Grove and Town and Country historic districts in south Scottsdale are typical suburban ranch-style homes from the 1950s.
But the subdivisions exemplify the post-World War II boom that set the Valley on course as one of the country’s fastest-growing metropolitan areas, Abele said.
They also illustrate the evolution of home building in mid-20th century America and reflect Scottsdale’s transformation from a rural town into a modern urban center, she said.
Post-WWII residential subdivisions are increasingly becoming a focus of East Valley preservation efforts.
Scottsdale is targeting several more of its 1950s neighborhoods for historic designation.
Tempe is looking at 20 such neighborhoods to determine if they have ample qualifications for historic designation.
Mesa wants to make its Fraser Fields neighborhood the first among postwar residential districts in the East Valley to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, in addition to its local historic register listing.
PASSION TO PRESERVE
Mesa is hiring a historic preservation planner who will concentrate on working with residents interested in pursuing historic designation for their neighborhoods — most of them developed in the post World War II period.
Why go to all the effort?
Preservation’s impact on the six neighborhoods Mesa has already placed on its local register in the last decade answers the question, said Vince Anderson, chairman of the city’s preservation committee.
It has fostered a sense of civic pride, increased property values and spurred economic investment, Anderson said.
Improvements in Mesa’s West Second Street Historic District made Mark Reeb and his wife, Candace, confident enough about the area’s future to purchase five homes there since the mid-1990s. The houses are in various stages of rehabilitation.
Mark Reeb is a land investor and developer but the home renovations are a labor of love. He grew up in the neighborhood and said he hopes to have members of his family eventually occupy some of the houses.
Scottsdale resident Joy Rich said she’s seen a change since her Village Grove neighborhood became a local historic district. “People are responding. You see a lot more (renovation) work going on,” said Rich, a planning director for Maricopa County.
Scottsdale-based real estate agent Scott Jarson sees a “grassroots revitalization” being sparked by historic neighborhood designations.
“There is a segment of the (home buyers) market of people who are passionate about preservation. They take pride in restoring and saving houses,” Jarson said.
Despite the positive buzz, preservation remains an uphill battle from an economic standpoint, said Joe Nucci, Tempe’s historic preservation officer.
“There are competing value systems at work. The bottom line is that a lot of times the raw land a historic building is on is much more valuable than the building itself,” Nucci said.
It’s particularly worrisome to Tempe’s preservation supporters that zoning in areas where many significant older buildings stand allows high-density development — an incentive for property owners to profit by clearing out the old for the new.
Since the mid-1980s, the combination of economics, zoning, urban growth and related factors have led to demolition of six properties in Tempe — a school, homes, commercial buildings and a bridge — that were on the national historic register.
The city also recently faced the potential loss of the Eisendrath House, a 1930s mansion adjoining Papago Park that’s listed on the Tempe historic register. It was purchased by the city parks department in 2002 to preserve open space and prevent private development within the park.
Officials now are working on a plan for the city water department to renovate and use the building. It would house an exhibit on the history of water management in Arizona and the Valley and also provide space for community gatherings.
Other significant Tempe structures are being threatened by development.
Nucci is concerned, for instance, that the Arizona State University Tempe campus expansion could doom a geodesic dome structure that housed one of the city’s most important businesses.
Its unusual design — influenced by the work of renowned architect and inventor Buckminster Fuller — made it a local landmark. But the building at Apache Boulevard and Rural Road, where ASU plans to erect new facilities, also was once a Valley National Bank office.
SUCCESS RESTS ON PUBLIC
Local governments rarely have the funds to consider saving significant properties by purchasing them, and private property rights carry more legal weight than protections offered by national or local historic designations. So preservation will always depend to a great extent on property owners resisting development pressure.
The Ellis family’s 10-acre Cattletrack property in Scottsdale is a case in point. The longtime artists colony about a mile from downtown Scottsdale is on the national and local historic registers and the family is in the process of refurbishing and expanding facilities so the colony can remain economically viable.
That does not stop developers and land investors from regularly inquiring about whether the family would consider a sale. “It’s not going to happen,” Janie Ellis said.
Keeping alive the character and spirit of places such as Cattletrack are crucial to “anchoring our history,” said Victor Linoff, former chairman of Mesa Historical Preservation Committee.
Local governments might boost such efforts by instituting formal historic preservation programs, but ultimately, Linoff said, “It’s the commitment of individuals and neighborhoods that will determine how much of our history we’ll have left to show.”