Healing Arizona

City of Mesa Restores Black Physician's House

It took Arizona until 1992 to approve a holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr., and it took Mesa—the third-largest city in the state—even longer. It wasn't until Mesa's African American residents (fewer than five percent of the population) carried out protest marches for five years that Mesa established a paid city holiday in 1996.

Mesa's mayor and city council took another step toward bridging the racial divide in 2005, with the acquisition of the historic bungalow that belonged to Dr. Lucius Alston, Mesa's first African-American physician. In 2007, crews began restoring the 960-square-foot stucco residence, which will become the headquarters for Mesa's Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Committee and the Mesa Association of Hispanic Citizens.

"Except for obvious additions, the house has not changed much over the years," says Ron Peters, the local architect who helped coordinate the restoration. "It's simple and eclectic with Craftsman-style touches, such as the arched front entrance. But there's not a lot of detail." 

Private donations ($12,000), a Community Development Block grant ($80,000), and funds from the Arizona State Parks Historic Preservation department ($100,000), paid for the restoration. When work concludes next month, the house will be co-owned by the city, the Mesa Association of Hispanic Citizens, and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration Committee—an appropriate nod to the Native American, Hispanic, and Black patients Alston treated. Alston also saw white patients, who appeared at his back door late at night in an effort to hide their patronage of an African American doctor. "It was a mostly black neighborhood then," says Everette R. Woods, treasurer of the city's Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Committee.

By the time renovation work began, the house (built in 1922 by George Strelen but enlarged by Alston), had suffered considerable damage and deterioration. In fact, the first time Randy Ringleb, president of Tempe-based Caymus Corporation construction company, eyeballed the house, he thought there was "little to salvage." Although Ringleb's crew had to replace the rotted wood-shingle roof with shakes and install new decking, the overarching goal was to preserve as much of the original structure as possible. Some of the original kitchen cabinetry was retained, along with a small built-in hutch, the oak flooring upstairs, a built-in ironing board, small bathroom sink and commode, and long kitchen sink, which "is cast-iron and took four men to carry," says Ringleb says. Other period pieces that were preserved the diamond-shaped decorative work on the upper walls of Alston's "office" and several glass light fixtures.

 

As a way to involve the Washington Park neighborhood, Ringleb employed several residents. Workers brought electrical, plumbing, and heating-cooling systems up to code, and the house was stabilized with new foundations. There's now a concrete parking area as well as walks and ramps leading up to the house.

According to Ringleb, the project is nearly complete, save for 29 new casement windows. ("It was difficult to find similarly-scored windows that were also energy-efficient," he notes.) His crew plans to lay ceramic tile flooring in the bathrooms, linoleum in the kitchen, and paint the exterior white. Then volunteers will finish the landscaping.

Eyes On the Prize

The Arizona Preservation Foundation placed the Alston House on its watchlist of historic properties in 2007. Since then, the group has has "kept in contact with Mesa historic preservation advocates to encourage them to advance the project," according to the foundation's Jim McPherson.

Fruit trees will line the perimeter of the property, says Mesa City Project Manager and landscape architect Steve Settler. "Neighbors will be encouraged to pick the fruit," he says. According to Settler, the lower-income neighborhood rallied around the restoration of the Alston House with "passion and humility" after recognizing the project would ultimately benefit them. "It's really due to Ron [Peters'] altruistic vision," Settler says.  

Counting services such as those donated by Peters, the preservation architect who executed detailed sketches of the house, more than $300,000 went into the project, according to Ringleb, "It was a labor of love," says Peters, "and a neat piece of Mesa history for that community."

Recognition of Lucius Alston's contribution to Mesa citizens means a lot to those people who knew the physician, a World War I veteran originally from West Virginia. "I'm ecstatic that the Preservation Committee and the neighborhood noticed what he did," says Everette Woods, "especially since he was not a stand-out; just a man carrying out his life's work."

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Comments

Submitted by Beatrice at: February 25, 2010
Good things happen to good people.

Submitted by tbh4mesa at: February 9, 2010
Great article on a wonderful piece of restoration (thanks, Ron!). But I do want to point out that it was not just Mesa's African American community who marched for the King holiday, lo these many years ago. It was truly a diverse crowd of supporters who filled the streets and the halls of the city to demand recognition of a great American civil rights leader.