Threatened: Phoenix's Marilyn Monroe Motel

Arizona State University plans to demolish the 1955 inn for its new law school campus.

Credit: Rachel Luptak

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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Submitted by Annie at: July 12, 2010
Arizona State has a law school?

Submitted by usedtoliveinTucson at: May 22, 2010
Luptak is right-on. Phoenix is a deadzone, an armpit, devoid of any reason to visit there - because they have not celebrated their history. I have never been so disappointed by a city in my travels...saving this hotel would be a good start.

Submitted by parking lots suck at: May 20, 2010
In the campus planning process, was it ever made known to the public that COP/ASU was going to raze the historic property for another parking lot? I think not.

Submitted by phoenix lover at: May 17, 2010
drove by and saw they've already started to demolish this property. too sad. it could have been our downtown's mid-century resort hotel. why doesn't historic preservation department protect our mid-century buildings?

Submitted by Truth is in the eye of the beholder at: May 13, 2010
So Phil Gordon and Michael Crow sit down and plan out ASU's campus on a napkin. They pick this site to "plan on" knowing that it is privately owned. The "rumor" is that they then threaten to condemn the property unless the City and ASU can have the "option to buy" a third of the property... Thus eliminating any incentive whatsoever for its owner to invest money into a renovation of the historic property when it could be purchased at any time by City/ASU. Sounds like a dirty deal if you ask me... What the City and ASU want, they will find a way to get. If this truly is not how it went down, please enlighten us...

Submitted by Truth Matters at: May 12, 2010
For the record -- ASU is not demolishing this building; the city of Phoenix is in charge of the land acquisition and the improvements (buildings) on it. The land was purchased with voter approved money from the 2006 bond election, specifically designated for education. And the Ramada site has been a part of the campus planning process since public meetings in 2004. Things have been moving in this direction for several years -- with voter approval. It is simply revisionist history to act today like this is something new. If you dont' want to pay attention to the civic process, that's fine -- just hold your indignation in check and try reviewing the facts.

Submitted by downtowner at: May 6, 2010
Well said jsethanderson. Why couldn't the City and ASU just buy another dirt or parking lot to build their Law School? Its not like there's a shortage of them in the vicinity. However small and uninteresting our Downtown Phoenix currently is - it was there before ASU. Not only should ASU respect the history, but how about the wishes of the living and breathing community that is downtown? Because that community is not going anywhere anytime soon. Unlike the ASU students that we all know will quickly leave after graduation, fleeing to bigger and better cities with thriving and exciting downtowns and opportunity. P.S. ASU President/EMPIRE BUILDER Michael Crow and his daughter party it up at the Clarendon Hotel. How ironic is it that he can't see the potential in this property.

Submitted by cdillon at: May 6, 2010
This is a beautiful, interesting building. It must be saved.

Submitted by jsethanderson at: May 6, 2010
Legg said, "There's nothing about the way the hotel was built that's conducive to anything we need." Who is "we"? ASU no doubt. The city bought this building with public money. Why is there no discussion about what the public needs? The public and residents of Phoenix need and deserve a thriving downtown with real points of interest. This building must be saved.