By Alison King
The PLF blog will feature a series of posts exploring modernist sites and efforts to preserve them. Join our top-notch blog contributors as they take you from Tucson’s Sunshine Mile to Googie coffeeshops. We think you will enjoy the journey.
Although Arizona has gained national recognition for its stock of remarkable midcentury architecture, preservationists working to save these sites face some critical obstacles—from a general lack of awareness to a state property rights act that deters traditional historic overlays. An emerging preservation organization, Modern Phoenix, is partnering with Arizona’s state and city historic preservation offices, the Arizona Preservation Foundation, Preserve Phoenix, and others to prevent the loss of Arizona’s midcentury homes and keep the character of midcentury neighborhoods intact. Short-term and decades-long objectives are balanced using five strategies that we hope keep Arizona a mecca for midcentury modern architecture.
Modern Phoenix first found an audience in 2003 when we published images and articles about the abundant midcentury housing stock in Phoenix and Scottsdale. Before social media made connection so effortless, our website cultivated a strong following of modernism enthusiasts. Within months the virtual community started holding annual home tours that featured affordable modern housing stock.
When three midcentury modern banks became threatened in 2007 (two of them were demolished) a new generation of concerned citizens looked beyond their own homes to the total story of Phoenix Metro’s midcentury heritage. The website’s focus on consumer education and tourism has matured into civic activism. The Postwar Architecture Task Force, a new offshoot of Modern Phoenix’s efforts, is now facilitating the preservation of some of Phoenix’s exemplary midcentury wonders.
In 2006 the Private Property Rights Protection Act, commonly known as Proposition 207, was voted into Arizona law. The intent was to limit eminent domain and require compensation by the government if private property owners experienced any loss in value as a result of government action, including historic preservation overlays.
While protection of private property rights sounds great in theory, Vince Murray of Arizona Historical Research predicted in the ballot’s publicity pamphlet that “Proposition 207 would seriously cripple local historic preservation efforts.” And it did.
Since Prop 207’s passing, Phoenix, Tempe, and Scottsdale have lost several beloved midcentury modern structures, from banks and schools to architecturally significant custom-designed homes. Designation of entire neighborhoods has slowed substantially. In November 2013 one of the modern homes listed on the Phoenix Historic Neighborhoods Coalition’s Endangered Dozen list, the Peterson House, was demolished to make way for three new houses. The adobe brick Peterson House with its central beehive fireplace was a rare example of desert modernism.
Reaching Constituents Across Multiple Platforms
Arizona’s preservation groups are using a number of strategies to help homeowners understand that midcentury neighborhoods have a distinct story associated with great design, great cultural figures, and great architects. Mapping and place-naming, historical research, homeowner outreach, curated lists, and home tours are all part of a multimedia approach to shape new attitudes toward midcentury-era preservation.
1) Mapping and Place-naming: It is difficult to talk about a home or neighborhood if nobody knows what to call it. In Metro Phoenix, the nicknames used for our postwar neighborhoods often refer to huge tracts of land, such as Maryvale. Smaller neighborhoods are frequently referenced by their cross-streets or general regions rather than their subdivision names. Original residents may know their own subdivision’s name from when it was built it the ‘50s and ‘60s but new generations may not, and consistent and clear signage doesn’t exist.
Through the revival of midcentury subdivision names, what used to be called “those tract homes at 10th Street and Bethany” is becoming known again as “Marlen Grove,” a desirable midcentury neighborhood in central Phoenix designed by Ralph Haver. It’s a place we hope in 10 years will have as much brand recognition as prewar historic districts such as Encanto or Willo.
Using an online tool called CommunityWalk, homes and neighborhoods that might meet Criterion B and C on the National Register are then pinned on Modern Phoenix’s maps of midcentury neighborhoods and homes. The public can comment on and contribute to the map as it grows, and learn the original neighborhood names.
2) Research and Historic Designation: Jim McPherson, president of the Arizona Preservation Foundation, believes the majority of Arizona’s new additions to the national and local historic registers will come from the postwar era. A preliminary study by the City of Phoenix shows that a greater part of its postwar housing stock was built in more than 1,000 subdivisions, with the vast majority of it constructed of concrete masonry units. Determining which of these 1,000-plus neighborhoods and individual homes are historically significant would be a challenge based on data alone.
Over the last ten years, Modern Phoenix has completed windshield surveys of the most culturally significant midcentury neighborhoods making notes on the architect, builder, and developer to document the overall pattern of postwar growth. Surveyors gathered information from oral histories, vintage publications, and advertisements. Community members contributed artifacts such as vintage marketing materials, floor plans, and photography to scan and share online.
3) Homeowner Outreach: Often homeowners don’t know the story of their home’s own provenance, but they have a hunch it is special. Modern Phoenix offers homeowner workshops on how to research midcentury homes using primary sources and public records, with specific support for do-it-yourself chain-of-title searching strategies using the County Assessor website.
Phoenix has an aging population, and it is shortsighted to assume folks will use Google to discover how hip their modern neighborhood is. So we mail vintage articles, photographs, and contemporary journalism to homeowners with a friendly note. These materials can help with marketing the home if it is for sale, as the packet might mean quite a bit to a future owners. We think of it as sowing seeds for the future.
Old-fashioned door hangers are also effective. Modern Phoenix’s volunteers can request hangers and place them in their own neighborhoods, or at homes they feel are at risk. The hangers encourage homeowners—old and new—to connect with the larger community and learn more about their homes.
4) Expert-Curated Lists: Phoenix Historic Neighborhood Coalition’s “Endangered Dozen List” has been successful in bringing attention to and staving off development of many historic properties. The City of Phoenix has its Midcentury Marvels list of commercial architecture, and the Postwar Architecture Task Force is actively working toward the preservation of 25 of these sites.
Modern Phoenix has compiled authenticated lists of homes by local architects such as Ralph Haver, Al Beadle, and Blaine Drake to catalogue their work and educate property owners. While placement on a register may be years off for some of these homes, we want to build up cohorts and motivate owners to preserve their homes and pursue national or local historic designation. It’s their time to shine!
5) Home Tours: Midcentury modern home tours are the most popular, far-reaching, and exciting of all our strategies. We reach citizens who are not only shopping with their eyes but also with their hearts, seeking their next neighborhood or home to live in. While tours may seem like “preservation lite” compared to the clout of law and policy, homeowners tend to see it differently; they like to know that a new generation will gladly pick up the torch of stewardship whether there’s a preservation program or not.
Home tours bring the preservation conversation into the now, face-to-face, and in the media, with hundreds of lively citizens. Architecture, after all, must be experienced and felt before any judgment on its quality can be made. Getting people to feel it for themselves may be the best protection that homes with no protection at all might have at this crucial point Arizona’s preservation story.
I am often asked whether or not I think these strategies we use will ever make a difference. I believe that each activity is a seed with the potential to grow. Sometimes we can get so busy saving buildings that we forget the simple, proactive things we can do to cultivate a healthy attitude toward cultural conservation. Decades of teaching have proven the principle to me over and over again: Ideas will take root in their time. Plant enough ideas and soon you will gather an abundance.
Alison King is the founder of ModernPhoenix.net and the Postwar Architecture Task Force of Greater Phoenix. She is also Associate Professor of Design at The Art Institute of Phoenix, where she teaches design history and graphic arts. In 2013 she was awarded the NTHP’s American Express Aspire Award which recognizes emerging leaders in preservation.
Pride and Prejudice: Preserving Midcentury Modern Heritage
The Sunshine Mile: Saving a Commercial Modernist Shopping District
No Longer Invisible: Googie Coffeeshops
What Makes Modernism So Different?
Saving the Modern Century: Future Visions for Historic Preservation