Historical Downtown Phoenix freight depot gets new life
Once a hub of commerce, a long-empty 1929 railway building in Phoenix is switching to a new track as county offices
A historical rail depot that once was a thriving hub of Phoenix commerce is getting a top-to-bottom fix-up and a second chance at life as county offices.
Maricopa County is spending nearly $4 million to restore and renovate the Santa Fe Freight Depot at Fifth Avenue and Jackson Street for use by the Assessor’s Office. The county already owned the building, but it had become a dusty graveyard for broken chairs, old tables, copier parts and other county castoffs.
“That’s what happens when you have an empty space in a big city,” said Jim Brignall, president of Brignall Construction Co. of Phoenix, the contractor doing the renovation. “People find it and utilize it for their own uses. But it will be a nice corner. It will remind people of what it was.”
The depot opened in 1929 and for years was a key shipment point for goods moving to and from Phoenix by railroad. Merchandise headed for department stores was collected there. A tunnel connected the depot to the ice-storage building nearby so the big blocks of ice that kept food fresh could be shuttled between buildings. The tunnel is still there and was used in the renovation to route a sewer line.
The assessor is closing four outlying offices around the Valley and will consolidate them in the renovated depot, scheduled to open in April. The county says it will save $700,000 to $800,000 a year in lease money it pays on the satellite offices without having to lay off the people who work in them. Sixty to 70 of the assessor’s more than 320 employees will be based at the depot. One of the satellites will be converted for use by another county department.
“We need every one of those positions,” Assessor Keith Russell said. “This is one-time money to fix this as opposed to annual money that gets spent every year, year in and year out, on those rents. In these tough economic times that’s always a big plus, to be able to put some money towards people as opposed to buildings.”
The depot has been vacant since the mid-’60s. Dick Carr, the depot project manager for the county, said the county has owned the depot for about 10 years. The 15,000-square-foot depot was scheduled for demolition in the early 2000s as part of a county construction project but was spared when preservationists objected. A parking garage sits just a few feet south of the depot.
The building is made of poured concrete reinforced with steel, making for what Carr said it is a very sturdy structure. A layer of asbestos was dug out of the floor, and lead paint and lead-encased wiring were removed.
“It was an environmental disaster zone,” Carr said.
The building’s exterior is on Phoenix’s historical register and will be restored to its original look. Roll-up loading doors will be replaced with windows. The wood bumpers attached to the building, gouged by truck bumpers and brittle from decades of weather, will be replaced. The Santa Fe logos will remain. The renovated depot also will meet Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design green-building standards.
The depot will house the assessor’s geographic information systems, fees processing, exemptions and residential property-valuation appeals. Even though the interior will be new, the railroad theme will be echoed. The county says it will borrow railroad artifacts, such things as old maps and railway guides from the Arizona Railway Museum, duplicate them and display them inside.
Patte Thornton, the project’s architect, described the depot as an industrial building with Art Deco touches. Thornton, of Arrington Watkins Architects of Phoenix, said the building’s original drawings are being used to guide the work.
She said one of the biggest jobs will be restoring the concrete face of the building’s east side.
“That building’s been abused,” she said. “Nobody ever considered re-use of it.”