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Arizona's Eclectic Architecture

July 26, 2013

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Picture Arizona, its wide open vistas such as the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley engineered by Mother Nature. In the movies, Arizona is often depicted as a rowdy frontier town with wooden planked sidewalks, saloons and hitching posts. 

But these one-note portrayals belie the rich diversity of architectural influences found in commercial and residential settings both ancient and contemporary.

Our architectural heritage harkens back to the earliest of settlers, American Indians whose influence still echoes in buildings that typify timeless Southwest design.   Modern designers reference this unique Sonoran identity marked by Spanish flourishes. Appreciated for their legacy and beauty, important commercial and residential structures dot every corner of Arizona, and continue to inspire the next generation of dreamers and doers.

    Built on Native Foundations

Montezuma Castle National Monument in the Verde Valley area north of Phoenix, whispers the secrets of desert dwellers thousands of years ago. A 20-room high-rise apartment nestled into a towering limestone cliff, Montezuma Castle is the best preserved prehistoric cliff dwelling in North America, and in its design one can easily see the precursor to the pueblo-style architecture prominent in today’s southwest communities and imagine the Sinagua indians’ struggle to survive in the harsh desert climate. The architectural style features multi-tiered stone or adobe dwellings, consisting of bricks composed of sand and clay. The style continues today in pueblo homes built on mesas in the Hopi reservation in northern Arizona, home to Old Oraibi, the oldest continuously inhabited area in North America.

 Many historic homes and commercial buildings in southern Arizona and Tucson, known collectively as the "Old Pueblo," reflect the enduring adobe construction style. Rancho de la Osa, located 60 miles from Tucson, still operates today as a dude ranch and houses a cantina called "Old Adobe.” The building was built as a mission outpost in the late 17th century, in what was then New Spain, to provide traveling Jesuit priests with supplies. Today the cantina is used for guest socializing. La Casa Cordova is likely the oldest surviving building in Tucson, possibly built as early as 1848. The one-story adobe house, now a part of the Tucson Museum of Art, is of typical Mexican town house design with a flat roof, central brick courtyard and doors opening directly to the street. For more information, visit www.tucsonmuseumofart.org/block/la-casa-cordova.php.

A popular destination for Catholic pilgrims and an internationally known work of art, Mission San Xavier del Bac just south of Tucson, is one of the finest examples of Spanish Colonial architecture in the U.S. The “White Dove” as it is affectionately known, is one of Arizona's oldest structures. Though the mission was started by Father Eusubio Kino in 1692, the church was not constructed until 1797, under the direction of two Franciscan Fathers. It is believed to have been designed following the traditional shape of the cross by architect Ingnacia Gaona, and constructed by a large workforce of Papago Indians (the previous name of today’s Tohono O’odham). Some of its distinctive features include white walls of fired adobe brick that are six feet thick, a 52-foot high flattened dome with a lantern and two 80-foot bell towers supported by flying buttresses. The interior of this National Historic Landmark is decorated with paintings, gilt and statues.

     Western Frontier Roots

As Arizona expanded its boundaries through mining and rail, it looked to prominent architects to establish buildings that would be landmarks for years to come. Mary Jane Colter was brought in by the Fred Harvey Hotels to design buildings along the Santa Fe Railroad. Careful to use Arizona’s rugged landscape as her inspiration, Colter considered the hacienda-style La Posada Hotel built in 1929 at the Santa Fe railroad in Winslow to be her masterpiece. She designed the entire resort from the building and its gardens to the china and maids’ uniforms. The railroad closed the hotel in 1957 but it has since been restored and is open to the public as a hotel, gardens, museum, restaurant and trading post. More information is available at www.laposada.org.

Other buildings within the Grand Canyon National Park that were designed by Colter include Phantom Ranch, built in 1922 and still standing today at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, and five structures on the Canyon's south rim, including the Hopi House, Hermit’s Rest, the observatory Lookout Studio, the 70-foot Indian Watchtower at Desert View and the Bright Angel Lodge. The four buildings excluding the Bright Angel Lodge were designated as “Mary Jane Colter Buildings” and listed collectively as a National Historic Landmark in 1987. For more information on the Colter Buildings, visit http://www.nps.gov/history/nr/feature/wom/2001/colter.htm.

As the state’s first capitol, Prescott's town square reflects imported Victorian tastes as well as a certain territorial feel reflective of the pioneers who settled in the area in the early 1900s. Other destinations with their origins in mining and/or the railway house beautifully maintained structures with east coast influences that are in active use today, in Bisbee, Jerome and Flagstaff.

Downtown Phoenix also reflects the Victorian influence of the state's original residents, with homes owned by the earliest residents of the city in the center of the city at Heritage and Science Park. The Rosson House in Heritage Square was built in 1894 and is one of the few homes left in the original Phoenix town site. The 10-room home features pressed-metal ceilings, an elaborately carved oak staircase and fine parquet floors. Other historical buildings in Heritage Park are occupied by critically acclaimed restaurants and bars. Near downtown Phoenix and downtown Tucson are historically designated residential areas, showcasing a variety of architectural styles that demonstrate the variety of architecture in Arizona, ranging from hacienda-style adobe homes to craftsman-style bungalows with wide porches.

Hollywood’s Influence

Glamour began to seep into Arizona a century ago.  Many of our major towns had some type of theater, most constructed during the silent film era when grand movie houses were a town’s sophisticated center.  Many of these icons survive after careful restoration.

The Orpheum Theatre in downtown Phoenix was originally used for vaudeville acts. The $750,000 building was completed in 1929 and built in a Spanish Baroque style, replete with intricate murals and moldings. After many years, the theatre fell into disrepair until it was purchased in 1984 by the City of Phoenix, which then began a $14 million, 12-year restoration process. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985, reopened in 1997 and is the current home of the Phoenix Metropolitan Opera

The Fox Tucson Theatre opened in 1930 as a performance space for movie showings, community events, vaudeville performances and the Tucson chapter of the Mickey Mouse Club. Originally called “The Tower,” it is the only known example of a Southwestern Art Deco movie palace. The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a “nationally significant structure” due to its special acoustical treatment, called “Acoustone,” and its unique décor. The building, which left vacant for 25 years, was bought by the Fox Tucson Theatre Foundation in 1999 and over a six year, $13 million restoration, was reopened to the public.

   The Modern Master & His Acolytes

Widely hailed as the premier American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright was a major influence in the Phoenix and Scottsdale areas, who left his mark on several buildings throughout the metropolitan area.

With his emphasis on organic architecture, Wright found inspiration among the giant saguaros and desert landscape of the southwest.  He built his personal winter home, Taliesin West at the foot of the McDowell Mountains in Scottsdale between 1937 and 1959. Open to the public for both day and evening, indoor and outdoor tours, it’s an internationally renowned attraction that illuminates this architectural titan in all his complexity, and showcases his craftsmanship.  For more information, visit the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Web site at www.franklloydwright.org.

Wright also designed the Gammage Auditorium at Arizona State University, First Christian Church in Phoenix with its striking blue spire and several private residences situated within exclusive desert communities. His influence can be seen in works today created by his apprentices, many still practicing in Arizona. One of those apprentices, Albert Chase McArthur, designed the world-famous Arizona Biltmore, also known as “The Jewel of the Desert.” 

A Frank Lloyd Wright apprentice, Paolo Soleri was an Italian-American architect and pioneering urban planner best known for Arcosanti, a community 70 miles north of Phoenix. “Arcology,” a term coined by Soleri, is a concept geared toward the design of enormous habitats for high human population density that minimize individual environmental impact. The experimental Arcosanti project began in 1970 and continues today, comprising 25 acres with the capacity to hold 5,000 people. Cosanti, located in Paradise Valley just outside of Phoenix, serves as the gallery and studio of Soleri, where visitors can purchase his legendary ceramic and bronze bells, fanciful and collectible wind chimes. Scottsdale’s Soleri Bridge and Plaza is Soleri’s last work, a pedestrian passage, solar calendar and gathering place along the Scottsdale Waterfront. For more information, visit www.arcosanti.org.

A fixture in the metro Phoenix area's design scene, Will Bruder studied under Paolo Soleri and Gunnar Birkerts, an American modernist architect. Bruder acquired field experience in woodwork, metal work and masonry and is recognized for his building processes as well as his ability to blend space, materials and light. Bruder’s largest structure is the Burton Barr Central Library in Phoenix, a massive five-story city landmark that accommodates a one-acre, open reading room and a five-floor glass and steel elevator called the “Crystal Canyon.” Bruder also designed the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art and Temple Kol Ami in Phoenix.  Learn more at http://willbruderarchitects.com.

     Mid-Century Marvels

One of the more notable designers of mid-century residential architects in central Phoenix was Al Beadle, noted for his stylish influence on desert modernism. Many of his homes have been snapped up by young urban hipsters and meticulously restored.  Beadle-designed commercial buildings, apartment buildings and residential buildings are dotted throughout the Phoenix central city area. Modern Phoenix Week celebrates the resurgence of this architectural trend with a host of entertaining and educational events, including lectures, films, workshops and an expo, capped by a sold-out tour of homes. Visit http://www.modernphoenix.net/hometour/index.htm  for details.

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