Threatened: Phoenix's Marilyn Monroe Motel
By Gwendolyn Purdom | Online Only | May 6, 2010
While filming 1956's Bus Stop, Marilyn Monroe stayed in a penthouse apartment suite of a downtown Phoenix motor hotel called the Sahara Inn. Today the abandoned brick-and-concrete building, once a thriving example of the roadside oases that put southwestern cities like Phoenix on the map in the 1950s and 60s, faces an uncertain future.
Tomorrow a group of developers and preservation advocates, led by the local Downtown Voices Coalition, will meet with Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon to discuss options for the building, a former Ramada Inn.
The City of Phoenix and Arizona State University bought the property for $6.25 million in February with plans to raze it in coming months and eventually build the university's law school. In the meantime, the city wants to use the lot as overflow parking for the nearby Sheraton hotel, a controversial choice in a city already filled with empty lots.
"[The school] doesn't need to be [built at] that site," says Rachel Luptak, a local interior designer whose firm conducted a study last summer of the 1955 property for a potential client. "So many of these Midcentury motor inns have been demolished."
Underneath the Sahara Inn's stucco facade, Luptak and her team found mosaic tiles, floor-to-ceiling glass, cast-in-place concrete, and other details of a bygone era in the city's history. "All of the building's design integrity has been covered up by ugly stucco," Luptak says. "I fell in love with the building's potential … what it could be and what it was back then."
The Sahara was constructed in 1955 by renowned local builder Delbert Webb and features a full city block of retail space, a bar, café, gift shop, two large terrace suites, 175 guest rooms, and two penthouses. Webb is the namesake for Arizona State University's own Del E. Webb School of Construction, part of the university's School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment. Demolishing the hotel would not be a sustainable choice, says the Downtown Voices Coalition, the Arizona Preservation Foundation, Phoenix Historic Neighborhoods Association, and the Modern Phoenix Neighborhood Network.
"There seems to be only two remedies with older buildings," says Steve Weiss, steering committee chair of the Downtown Voices Coalition. "They knock it down quickly, before anyone realizes it's gone, or let it deteriorate to the point that no one cares it's gone."
Jeremy Legg, economic development program manager for the city of Phoenix, says although the university has prided itself in incorporating historic Phoenix buildings into their downtown campus in the past, preserving the Sahara wouldn't be logical.
"There's nothing about the way the hotel was built that's conducive to anything we need," Legg says. The university used the 100,000-square-foot building for temporary student housing in 2006 and 2007 while dorms were being built, but because the Sahara has small rooms and takes up too much space in prime downtown real estate, Legg says the space could be used more effectively. Although the university hasn't set a demolition date yet, construction on the law school is planned for sometime in the next three to five years.
"While this step cannot be taken immediately, ASU would advance such an effort with the same careful attention and commitment to sustainable construction and practices that it has demonstrated in the development of existing campuses," ASU president Michael Crow wrote in a letter dated March 31, 2010, responding to the Downtown Voices Coalition's concerns.
But for Luptak, Weiss, and other concerned Phoenix residents, sustainable construction can't replace the Sahara's historic value. "Our downtown is not thriving yet, because nothing's interesting," Luptak says. "We haven't celebrated our history. We haven't made a unique identity for ourselves." The Sahara's story is something worth celebrating, she says. "It's got a resort-like feel in the center of a city where we're surrounded by asphalt. The thought of all that sitting in a landfill is just a shame."
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