Deserted in Tempe

Surrounded by strip malls, a fortune teller refuses to sell her house to developers.

Mrs. Rita's

Credit: Lisa Selin Davis

Drive east on University Drive to Mill Avenue in Tempe, Ariz., and you'll see endless strip malls, an abandoned garage, more strip malls, Circle K, an 1880 Georgian revival house, strip malls, Burger King, a Mobil station, a Chili's … Wait. Go back. What's a historic house like that doing in a place like this?

When Rita Miller, Tempe's local psychic, began telling fortunes in this house in 1969, she never predicted how the town would look today. "It grew up all around us," says her husband, Boyd Miller. "We didn't even notice it." Their small clapboard house sits back 50 feet from the busy thoroughfare, fronted by a tenaciously green lawn and a lighted sign announcing Mrs. Rita's palm- and tarot-card reading services. Theirs is the last original residence still standing on this strip in Tempe's recently remodeled downtown.

Tempe grew up around the Hayden Flour Mill, which began churning in 1874. But Arizona, the 48th of our 50 states, wasn't annexed until 1912. So it makes sense that historic preservation continues to be controversial in a state where everything is new, where most residents moved here to begin new lives.

The Millers traveled west from New York to sleepy Tempe in the late 1950s, when its population was a modest 8,000. Just a few blocks from Mrs. Rita's was The Normal School, later to become Arizona State University, which then enrolled only a few thousand students, many of whom resided in the Maple-Ash neighborhood hidden behind their house. "There were no jobs then," Boyd says. "There were no restaurants. It was the desert."

Now their poured-glass picture window is filled with a high-rise complex known as Centerpoint, completed in 1994. They look out on Chase Manhattan corporate offices and a six-story parking garage. The view from the Miller's living room is the painted white brick wall of a clothing store, and fluorescent light from the Circle K seeps into the foyer to compete with the incandescence of a crystal chandelier. 

Mill Avenue, Tempe's main street, c.1910.

Credit: Tempe Historical Museum

At the turn of the last century, the Miller's house belonged to George N. Gage, the area's first real-estate tycoon. As the secretary of the Tempe Land and Improvement Company, Gage led development efforts that included setting aside 80 acres for the university and promoting settlement of Tempe. And now the Gage house remains one of the last buildings downtown to resist redevelopment.

Miller dabbles in real estate himself, but no amount of pressure from the city, university, or developers can get him to sell. The couple receives at least one letter a week requesting to buy their shallow lot, and they've been offered more than half a million dollars for the parcel, but "there's no replacing it," he says. "We've been here 40 years. We're not going to sell now."

All around Mrs. Rita's, massive projects like Centerpoint have sprung up, dwarfing the tiny house and rendering it an architectural fossil. But that only makes Boyd appreciate it more. "Now I'm right in the center of things," he says. "The more they develop, the more I want to stay."

In late 1980s the city government of Tempe began a campaign to clean up the central business district, weeding out the biker bars and druggie hangouts in the little bungalows that used to line Mill Avenue, Tempe's main drag. "It was all slum and blighted," says Dave Fackler, the city's development services manager. "Old gas stations and deteriorated single-family houses had been converted to apartments and outdated commercial buildings."

Since redevelopment efforts began, and since the Millers have seen every one of their neighboring historic residences razed and removed, Mill Avenue is booming. The city boasts an ever-increasing population of 158,000, and the university is now home to more than 50,000 students. With a labor force of more than 100,000 and one of the lowest unemployment rates in Arizona, Tempe's commitment to maintaining an active and profitable central-business district seems to have paid off. Much of this is due to the success of the Centerpoint multi-use redevelopment project and other construction it spawned.

Even if some buildings were lost, Tempe's Economic Development Administrator Jan Schaefer says, "those houses were pretty old and in decay. Some were razed; people were relocated. This [Centerpoint project] was a $44 million investment that created 2,400 jobs. That was a clear catalyst for clearing the rest of the site." The project has rejuvenated what seemed a hopelessly decayed downtown 20 years ago, but some residents are now beginning to wonder what was lost architecturally in exchange for economic gain.

Even though city employs a design commission, it put no pressure on Chase Manhattan when it agreed to occupy the Centerpoint site across from Mrs. Rita's. "We knew that they wanted to build a very nice building," Schaefer says. "The intention was to look at historic buildings and build something that would mesh."

Yet the six-story, green-glass office building with a brick facade bears no resemblance to the low buildings and strip malls that surround it, and none to the houses that used to stand there.

Tempe, surrounded by the chic city of Scottsdale, the metropolis of Phoenix, and the suburbs of Mesa and Chandler, is considered the artsy section of the greater Phoenix area. While some planners laud Tempe's smart-growth policies that encourage downtown communities, it is the only municipality without designated historic districts. The city has a preservation ordinance to protect individual buildings from demolition, but those regulations apply only to the 21 structures listed on its historic register.

Landlocked Tempe doesn't have much room to grow. "We have 40 square miles of development space, compared to Phoenix with 1,000, Scottsdale with 600, and Mesa with 370," says City Historic Preservation Officer Joe Nucci. "In order to keep our economy growing, we can't just develop. We have to redevelop." 

The Maple-Ash neighborhood, Tempe's oldest

Credit: Tempe Historical Museum

Mrs. Rita's sits right in the line of fire, the tiny strip of land between massive city-endorsed commercial redevelopment and the grassroots preservation efforts of the Maple-Ash Neighborhood Association, founded in 1989. The collection of houses built in the early 1900s and newer houses dating to the 1940s and 50s is the only remaining pre-war area in Tempe. For years, Maple-Ash residents have attempted to classify the neighborhood as a historic district to prevent further demolition of the last few early Tempe homes, but a variety of zoning issues have so far made this impossible.

"Tempe is a worst example of community of preservation or a best example, depending on your perspective," says John Akers, curator of history at the Tempe Historical Museum. "Those who were redeveloping thought they were doing preservation by keeping the downtown a central business district rather than keeping the individual buildings."

This makes the Millers' refusal to sell even more of a feat. "We're not progress-prone," Boyd Miller says. "If I knew this was going to happen a long time ago, I would have bought everything and renovated. I wouldn't have let them tear down anything."

Why didn't Mrs. Rita predict how the town of Tempe would transform all around them? Miller looks out at the glowing green of Centerpoint and sighs. "She reads palms," he says, "not politicians."

Lisa Selin Davis is a freelance writer living in Tempe, Ariz.  

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