Mod in Phoenix
Arizonans Celebrate the State's Recent Past
By Arin Greenwood | Online Only | May 9, 2008
On Apr. 5 and 6, 2008, hundreds of people converged in Phoenix to tour a neighborhood of midcentury modern houses, and to go to seminars on the history and importance of midcentury architecture. It was the fourth annual Modern Phoenix house tour and expo–and the biggest group of participants yet. But as more and more people discover the beauty in ranch house tracts, historic preservationists worry that those tracts are disappearing.
One summer in a concrete hut in Arcosanti, an experimental architecture-focused eco-community in the Arizona desert, Alison King and her high school sweetheart–now husband, Matthew King–rediscovered their home state.
Alison had grown up in Scottsdale, and Matthew was "practically native," Alison says, having moved to Arizona when he was four. But in 1999, the two moved together from Arizona to New York City for college; this turned into 10 years in the city of skyscrapers.
Then they spent the summer living in Arcosanti and "fell in love with the desert again," King says. Not incidentally, they also decided they wanted to get married. "We figured out that if we could live in a concrete cube down by the river with no air conditioning for a summer without killing each other, we could do just about anything together."
In 1999 Alison and Matthew moved back to Arizona–to Phoenix, the land of one-story modern houses. Phoenix's population exploded after World War II: in the post-war years, it was, in fact, the fastest growing population in the United States. This rapid growth in this new suburban era took the shape of mostly affordable tracts of modern houses with distinctive features like angled porch posts and floor-to-ceiling windows, a building style that stuck around until the 1970s, when stucco came into fashion.
"It was like coming home again," King says. "This architecture is what I grew up surrounded by."
While looking for a home and community of their own, Alison and Matthew began taking pictures of the largely undocumented modern architecture around them and putting the photos on the internet.
The photos drew out midcentury fans. "Other people started getting involved, reaching out to me," King says. "'Come check out my neighborhood!' "
In 2003, Modern Phoenix–as a Web site and a community devoted to Phoenix's mid-century architecture and neighborhoods–was born; the site has more than 1,300 members now.
Two years later, Modern Phoenix began hosting what has become an annual neighborhood tour and modernism expo. The first year's tour was of Windemere, a neighborhood designed by the Arizona modernist architect Ralph Haver, who built housing tracts around Phoenix in the 1950s. Windemere was built in 1955, and its houses are all Haver houses, "unless you count two reckless second-story additions," King says.
The tours since have focused on other neighborhoods that have preserved their modernist houses–this year's tour, for the first time, included modern churches as well as homes.
"Our first home tour attracted over 100 attendees," King says. "Our second we cut off at 200. Our third sold 400, and our fourth sold 500, with about 80 comps. It seems the more exposure we get, the more interest is generated both within the city and among out-of-town audiences. We have many out-of-towners come in annually just for the tour and expo weekend events."
King says part of the appeal of modern homes is that they are anathema to the McMansion aesthetic and mindset.
"Part of the love for it comes from wanting something more sustainable. Living within your means," she says. "You're not touring many homes that are worth more than half a million dollars. We're looking at homes that were purchased for $200,000 to $400,000. A lot of what our members do in their homes is creative use of materials, lots of recycling."
But as interest in Phoenix's modern homes and neighborhoods increases among the modern-minded, "some crazy bill that makes it difficult or impossible for neighborhoods to be preserved any time soon" has been passed, King says.
The "crazy bill" is Proposition 207–a 2006 ballot initiative called the "Private Property Rights Protection Act," which requires the government to compensate land owners for any diminution in value or restriction in use of the owner's property, including from zoning restrictions and–importantly for the modern-ophiles–historic districting. (The government that has to compensate the land owner is, according to the statute, Arizona's state government "or the political subdivision of this state that enacted the land use law.")
"The impact on historic preservation has been chilling," says Barbara Stocklin, historic preservation officer for the city of Phoenix, "The problem is for new districts, particularly the post-World War II neighborhoods. We were doing one or two districts a year. We haven't done any designations since Proposition 207."
Barbara says that most Arizonans believe Proposition 207 was promoted by developers who wanted to be able to tear down and build without restrictions and without regard for Arizona's unique architectural history.
Jim McPherson, the Arizona advisor to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, points to a 1940s apartment complex–the Palmcroft apartments–which used to house returning soldiers who came to Phoenix in droves after the war and found themselves without anyplace to live. The buildings were torn down in 2007 to make room for luxury townhouses.
"It was this out-of-state developer who came in and tore it down despite the neighbors' objections," McPherson says. "It's still an empty lot. There are developers coming in saying, 'What history do we have here? We don't have any history!' And we say, 'What? That's crazy!' If we start losing the buildings of this time, then what happens to the stories of right after the war?"
Modern Phoenix's membership continues to grow "exponentially," King says, as does interest in modern architecture and the documenting of Phoenix's particular modern buildings and enclaves.
And despite Proposition 207's chilling effect on historic preservation efforts, Stocklin says that modern buildings and neighborhoods haven't been destroyed as much as people feared they would be. "The housing market is not good," she says. "The good news is that people aren't really buying and tearing down houses right now. That's helping a little bit."
Arin Greenwood is a writer and lawyer living in Washington, D.C.
Arin Greenwood is a writer and lawyer living in Washington, D.C.
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