Horizon, Host: Ted Simons

September 6, 2010


Host: Ted Simons

Vanishing Phoenix


  • Robert Melikian, whose family owns and operates the historic Hotel San Carlos in downtown Phoenix, is the author of “Vanishing Phoenix”. Melikian talks about historic preservation and shares photos and stories from his book of buildings and landmarks that have disappeared.
Guests:
  • Robert Melikian - author, "Vanishing Phoenix"
Category: Culture

View Transcript
Ted Simons:
Good evening, and welcome to this special edition of "Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. Tonight we take a look at art and history. We start in downtown Phoenix where a commercial development is a sign of progress to some, but to others, as David Majure reports, it's a reminder of a vanishing Phoenix.

David Majure:
In downtown Phoenix stands the hotel San Carlos. Built in 1927, Robert Melikian's family has owned and operated the historic hotel since 1973.

Robert Melikian:
It's an oasis of elegance.

David Majure:
The kind of place where movie stars might stay.

Robert Melikian:
There's where Mae West came in 1929. She chose this hotel because it would charge a dollar more than any other hotel in Phoenix, Arizona. It had a gold spigot in the bathroom and had an air-cooled system and steam heat and the radiators -- we use the same system today, some 80 years later.

David Majure:
Inside not much has changed. Outside is another story.

Robert Melikian:
It's a growth, growth attitude in Phoenix and that's a wonderful successful formula but it has drawbacks. You ignore the history, you demolish your personal identity and lose out on the soul of downtown. We had magnificent buildings. Phoenix had a lot of interesting buildings and for the most part, gone now.

David Majure:
Torn down and replaced. In fact, the hotel San Carlos is among the few remaining survivors.

Robert Melikian:
It's the last operating historical hotel downtown and one of a dozen total historic properties left in downtown Phoenix.

David Majure:
Hoping to preserve those properties, Melikian wrote a book, "Vanishing Phoenix."

Robert Melikian:
You can't effect past behavior-- I'm hoping the book will give people an interest to strengthen our historic preservation ordinance.

Ted Simons:
Here to join me is the book's author, Robert Melikian. Good to have you here.

Robert Melikian:
Thank you very much, Ted.

Ted Simons:
How much of Phoenix has already vanished and why?

Robert Melikian:
We have only 80 to 100 commercial buildings left and 20 in the core, so the last 25 years Ted, a good 50 commercial buildings have been knocked down.

Ted Simons:
Is it just the idea that people -- we're new, grow, go, go, go kind of thing?

Robert Melikian:
It's a bottom line oriented business community we have here that's not really -- they're from somewhere else. Strong individuals. Don't want government to tell them what to do. I can understand that. They have no sense of preserving the past here. I’ll show you some buildings here that are magnets for pedestrian activity and business, and history is good for business.

Ted Simons:
When we look at some of these buildings, I hope we can talk about the craftsmanship and detail on the older buildings. It’s just phenomenal. Was that something unique to Phoenix or was architecture similar around the country?

Robert Melikian:
No, people took pride in their buildings in the turn of the 19th century and made them with quality and labor was less expensive and they could afford to put fanciful features. That today with labor would be prohibitive to do it.

Ted Simons:
And today, it strikes me, you look at the old neighborhoods in Phoenix and Tempe and Mesa and older parts of town, there's an oasis feel. And not so much -- zeroscaping is a big thing. But in those days, you crossed a big desert to get here, we're going to give you green, soothing atmosphere, correct?

Robert Melikian:
It's a common feeling being in an historic building. It's green, it's sustainable. It's the in thing do. The most green thing to do is keep a historic building standing.

Ted Simons:
Lets take a look at some of these historic buyildings, the first is the Clark Church Hill house and -- where was this?

Robert Melikian:
When I was researching my first book, I found an old box of photographs and it had this, and I said this can't be Phoenix. This magnificent Victorian building. So I did some research, fifth avenue on the North side of Van Buren Clark church, the attorney general for the territory built this magnificent building and he couldn't afford to finish the building. There's no windows, there's a man on the roof, on the tower, another man sitting on the roof and it was never finished and in the true nature of historic buildings, given a chance, they can adapt to other uses and he sold the house and six city blocks for $15,000 to the city for the start of Phoenix union high school and served the children of Phoenix for over 50 years until it was torn down in 1949.

Ted Simons:
Interesting, that is a gorgeous building. We showed what's there at that intersection right now and that looks to be Phoenix union high school, the biomedical campus, whatever you want to call it these days, but that's what it was, huh?

Robert Melikian:
Thanks to Clark Church Hill and the panic that forced him to sell.

Ted Simons:
The next building is the Anderson building. It's beautiful, but not quite as intricate as we just saw. But where was this?

Robert Melikian:
First street and Washington, northwest corner and you can see the craftsmanship in the pointed windows. It's a cathedral like, medieval building with the two towers that -- a lot of craftsmanship took place and it was a draw for people. You can see the different eras of transportation there. The horse and buggy, the bicycles and electrified trolley and two years after this was taken in 1900, automobiles to Phoenix.

Ted Simons:
Why was it torn down?

Robert Melikian:
It lasted to about the 1980s. It was a shame. It had lost its fanciful features. It was boxed in but it sat there. It was an office building. Office supply, the berry hill building it became. It was a furniture company, but this one lasted to the 1980s and was torn down.

Ted Simons:
It's still a busy coroner central Phoenix but doesn't look the same, does it?

Robert Melikian:
Doesn't have the pedestrian activity quite that it had in the old days.

Ted Simons:
Not quite. The next building is the cotton building, it looks more familiar in that we've seen other territorial buildings looking like this.

Robert Melikian:
The Queen Anne Cotton building was on the southeast corner of Washington and central and this was the national bank of Arizona. Banks accumulated money quickly because of the commercial scale of agriculture that developed once the railroad came and they were able to sell it. And John Y.T. Smith became a director. He was the supply master for fort McDowell and became the bank direct and discovered wild hay and when they dug the canals, that's how we got the name of Phoenix.

Ted Simons:
Indeed. This is what we have here now. Not as exotic as what we were looking at before. Why was it torn down?

Robert Melikian:
The national bank themselves thought it was old and they tore it down, within 15, 20 years of this photograph and built a larger national bank. The bank grew to quickly they wanted to maximize the lot there.

Ted Simons:
Let's keep it moving. We've got the Fleming building. Looks substantial. Maybe not as ornate as the others.

Robert Melikian:
It had a magnificent, very solid, Fleming building. James Fleming was a local businessman. He added a third and fourth floor and the first elevator in the entire territory was put in this building lasted until the 1980’s and this one could have made a charming distinctive development out of it.

Ted Simons:
They decided to tear it down. Why?

Robert Melikian:
Because the owner assembled the block and had plans for a huge high rise and I understand that, and I don't want the owners to subsidize history. I want the transferable development rights where they've given a incentive to keep it standing and not lose the ability to build a certain amount of space, but transfer it to another parcel or something.

Ted Simons:
This next building, I think I remember from the 1980s. The Patton opera house. This looks very familiar, where was the Patton Opera house?

Robert Melikian:
Fourth avenue and Washington was the shrine of Phoenix culture. It was a 1,200-seat theater for vaudeville and community dances and this important building had the -- a meeting took place where the landowners got together and decided to solve the unstable water supply and became Salt River project and the Roosevelt dam was decided on in this building and this lasted also into the 1980s until the city acquired it and knocked it down for the city -- the present city hall.

Ted Simons:
Yeah, because I knew I remembered -- it didn't look -- well, I don't know if it looked that great there. But -- let's keep it moving. This is what we're seeing in that location now. The present city hall. The fox west coast theater and this looks like what you see in other cities. They're still standing when they have these big beautiful theaters. The fox isn't still standing?

Robert Melikian:
No, unfortunately, S. Charles lee was the architect on this and his inferior one in Los Angeles is considered the best theater building in Los Angeles but designed a more elaborate one for Phoenix. Seating 1,800 people. And great memories of Saturday morning cartoons and double features and on first and second street, Washington and Jefferson, took the whole block and one of the jewels of Phoenix history.

Ted Simons:
Very ornate inside. We have photos of the lobby. Look at that staircase. That's fantastic.

Robert Melikian:
This is the grand staircase, you can see the streetlight, the metal rods were 15 feet high topped with silver globes and gold and silver leafed throughout the building and huge interiors. The promenade outside of the theater, a huge area for people to mingle and interact.

Ted Simons:
That's great.

Robert Melikian:
Look at the ceiling there.

Ted Simons:
Yeah.

Robert Melikian:
They don't make them like that anymore.

Ted Simons:
No, they don't. We have a couple of homes and these are -- these were actual residences and they look familiar and they should because they're related to something that still stands. The Dennis and Jacobs' homes.

Robert Melikian:
On east Monroe. From seventh to central street. The only one we have left is the Rosson house. These great buildings, the one on the right, lasted to the 1950s, and the Jacobs to the 1960s and it's a valuable asset. Buildings like these could have been saved and future generations could have learned what was important to people back then. The size of the rooms, the layouts.

Ted Simons:
Let's go to one last picture of the central school building and this is where the hotel San Carlos stands right now. This looks like something on seventh street. Was it all the same architecture?

Robert Melikian:
Old Adobe and they dug the well which still exists in the basement of the San Carlos, by the way. Dwight herd acquired the lot and the building -- they, the kids were living in the suburbs. And so this building was knocked down.

Ted Simons:
We're looking at these things and seeing a bit of a Renaissance, the idea that people are coming back to the core.

Robert Melikian:
We have a chance to bring back soul and people interaction but we have to require street-level activity. The problem is we have people building huge boxes of office spaces and nothing on the ground level so there's nothing for people do. We lost a window of opportunity to have condominiums and people living downtown. My business is a 24-hour-a-day hotel business and people ask, what can we do downtown? You want people to walk and interact with people and bakery shops and ice cream shops and bars. People want choices. You need many of these things to get people to walk downtown.

Ted Simons:
They certainly walked back downtown in the old days around these gorgeous buildings. Your book is fascinating. It's called "Vanishing Phoenix" Robert Melikian, thanks for joining us. And keep fighting the good fight.

Robert Melikian:
Thank you very much, Ted.

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