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Historic buildings in downtown Phoenix struggle to survive

[By Evie Carpenter, Downtown Devil]

Phoenix may be young in comparison to the old, Gothic mainstays of the East coast, but as venerable buildings like the Ramada Inn continue to be razed, many community activists are trying to reignite an appreciation for historic preservation in the nation’s fifth largest city.

The Hotel San Carlos has been in continuous operation since 1928. A building must be over 50 years old and meet other requirements to be added to the Phoenix Property Register and designated as historic. (Evie Carpenter/DD)

“Phoenix in general needs to be more aware of its history,” said Phoenix policy and research analyst, urbanist and blogger Yuri Artibise:

I think the buildings provide a sense of place, they provide what’s kind of called a city’s DNA.

Robert Melikian, a historic preservationist and author of “Vanishing Phoenix,” said that preserving a city’s old buildings helps add character to an otherwise bland concrete jungle.

Historical buildings “give you a sense of personal identity to the local area. Otherwise, there’d be just the same high-rise buildings in every downtown,” said Melikian, who also co-owns downtown’s Hotel San Carlos, which has been in continuous operation since 1928. “They show that we are all connected — they’re a link to the past. They’re time machines that show us what was important in the old days.”

In order to raise awareness of the threats to historical buildings in the Phoenix area, a group of neighborhood leaders formed the Phoenix Historic Neighborhoods Coalition, said G.G. George, president of Encanto Citizens Association and vice president of the coalition. Last year the coalition compiled a list of threatened historic buildings called the 2010 Most enDangered Dozen.

Donna Reiner, who acted as the chair of the enDangered Dozen Committee, said the coalition made the list to highlight buildings specifically in Phoenix, rather than building in Arizona or nationwide.

The buildings we chose “didn’t have to be on the historic, city or national register,” Reiner said. “It was more (an issue) of who had built it, who had lived in it, what was its connection to history.”

Reiner added that the physical condition of the building, its owners and whether the building was in foreclosure were also considered when choosing the Dozen. Neglect is one of the main reasons that a building becomes endangered, she said.

Artibise and Reiner said they agree that some may not view the buildings they chose as historic because they are not as old as historic buildings in cities on the East coast. Compared to those cities, however, Phoenix is much younger –- not yet 150 years old.

“You hear a lot people say, ‘Well, they’re not that old. It’s not like we’re tearing down 200-year-old buildings. They’re only like 50 years old,’” Artibise said:

But, you know, you need something to be 50 years old before it gets to be 100 years old.

A building must be over 50 years old and meet other “standards for integrity and historical significance” to be added to the Phoenix Property Register and designated as historic, according to the city’s Historic Preservation Office website. However, residential owners can designate their own neighborhoods as historic within the guidelines set by the city of Phoenix, Melikian said.

George said she has been in her historic home, located in the Encanto neighborhood, for 41 years. The neighborhood has been on the national register of historic neighborhoods since 1984.

Phoenix has 34 other residential historic districts, according to the city’s Historic Preservation Office’s website.

Although Melikian said that Phoenix has had success in preserving historic residential areas, he is unhappy with the efforts made to preserve historical commercial buildings.

“Commercial (historical preservation) is almost non-existent in (Phoenix’s) historic preservation,” he said:

It’s pretty much up to the community-minded owner whether they want to save the building or not. There’s nothing the city can do to stop them from tearing down a building.

Melikian suggested the city allow the public to designate a commercial building as historic rather than letting the owner of the building make the decision.

“We give too much authority to the owner, and we have a very weak preservation ordinance,” he said.

Nonetheless, Reiner said she thinks the city and groups like the Phoenix Historic Neighborhood Coalition “do a really good job of promoting historic preservation and explaining why it’s good.”

Both Reiner and Melikian mentioned that they believe Proposition 207, which passed in 2006, hinders historic preservation as well. The proposition, also known as the Private Property Rights Protection Act, states that the government may take private property as long as they offer “just compensation” to the owner of the property. Compensation may occur if an owner sees his or her property value decrease due to “the enactment of a land use law,” which includes historic overlay, according to

“People would misguidedly say that a historic overlay means I can’t do anything to my property, which is not true,” Reiner said:

If you are in a historic district and you do have historic overlay, your property values will remain more constant than if you don’t.

However, Melikian said that Proposition 207 scares the government away from designating properties as historic in order to avoid lawsuits.

“The government is paralyzed by Prop. 207 … but the government can’t designate anything historic because then they are going to be sued by people saying that they diminished the value of their property,” he said.

Despite the potential impediments of Prop. 207, if a building is designated as historic the owner will often renovate it to make it more practical. The city’s award-winning Adaptive Reuse Program was created in 2008 to support property owners who wish to modify their building for a new purpose.

“Some of these buildings, especially the older homes, were built for a specific purpose in a specific time, and times have changed so I think you can adapt,” Artibise said. “I think you need to work with what you have and use that as a starting point as opposed to destroying everything and starting from scratch.”

Melikian listed a variety of different uses for an adapted historic building and said that the reused building could become a novelty.

“History sells — it’s great,” Melikian said:

People love to go to historical buildings, restaurants, bakeries, ice cream shops, coffee shops. That’s the greatest thing — a historic building with a new use.

For many buildings in the downtown Phoenix area, though, the adaptive reuse program came too late.

Melikian said he wished the Fleming building on First Avenue and Washington Street was still standing, observing that it had “lasted almost 100 years but could have lasted another 100” and that it held the first elevator in the territory.

“It could have been a museum for youngsters to see what it was like in the 1890s and that was torn down for a high rise,” he said. “That building could have been used as a gateway, like a grand entrance to the high rise … now it’s just a nice high rise, same as in a dozen other cities.”

In the 1984 Historic Phoenix Commercial Properties Survey approximately 143 historic commercial buildings had lasted from about the 1920s to 1984, but 55 buildings have been knocked down in the last 25 years, Melikian said.

“It’s a terrible shame that no one cares about,” he said.

George described historic preservation as holding on to Phoenix’s past, which becomes vital when looking toward the city’s future.

“If we lose our history, we lose anything, any way to make decisions in the future,” she said:

We need to know what happened in the past to help us make comprehensive and intelligent decisions in the future.

Contact the reporter at

Ghost tours at the Hotel San Carlos in Downtown Phoenix

[Source: Jennifer McClellan, The Arizona Republic]


Cathy Bruegger/Special for


Guests on the weekly ghost tours of the Hotel San Carlos in downtown Phoenix get a good dose of the spooks, even if phantoms that allegedly haunt the hotel actually don’t materialize.

On Friday and Saturday nights through December, the tours take camera-carrying guests to rumored paranormal hotspots in the historic hotel and its pool. Guides from Ghosts of Phoenix, which runs the tours in partnership with the hotel, tell the real-life stories behind each haunt while peppering in tidbits about the hotel.

The guides aren’t paranormal investigators and they don’t promise guests that they’ll see spirits wandering the hallways. During check-in, the lead guide says that if guests think they experience something paranormal, like smelling the strawberry perfume of the woman who is said to haunt the seventh floor or being touched by one of the children who haunt the dreary basement, they should “look for the scientific explanations first.”

“Catching paranormal activity is like finding a needle in a haystack,” tour manager Linda Lieberman said. “TV shows make it seem like if you’re there for an hour, you’ll see three ghosts, but that’s not how it is. Our tour is a nice walk through a beautiful historical hotel, and every once in a while ghosts feel like messing with us.”

The Hotel San Carlos opened in 1928, and was the first high-rise hotel in the city with both elevators and air-conditioning. The then-posh hotel was a favorite playground for visiting movie stars and the vacationing well-to-do.

Stars such as Mae West, Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe stayed at the hotel. These days, though, the hotel’s reputed ghosts keep it famous. Along with being featured on Travel Channel‘s “Weird Travels: Haunted Hotels” and’s “Top 10 Haunted Hotels,” hordes of paranormal investigators, psychics and mediums scour the hotel’s creaky stairwells, narrow hallways and musty basement in search of apparitions.

Alleged haunts include the ghost of Leone Jensen, who, wearing an evening gown, stepped off the roof to her death. The story is that the 22-year-old was heartbroken at the lost love of a bellboy at a nearby hotel. She’s said to target dark-haired men, whom she reportedly watches in their sleep and follows along the hallways.

In the basement, a large low-ceilinged area and one of two areas on the tour that are usually off-limits to the public, the ghosts of three schoolboys and their dog are said to play. Inside the second-floor manager’s apartment, spirits supposedly like to drain energy out of cameras and phones to “mess with people,” Lieberman said.

On a recent tour, guest Diego Vera’s camera battery went from fully charged to completely dead while he walked from the barren living room to one of the bedrooms inside the apartment.

“I took my camera off the charger right before we came here,” said the 25-year-old Phoenix resident. “I was really surprised. I didn’t know what to think.”

Vera and his girlfriend, Saray Gordillo, 21, of Chandler, don’t believe in ghosts. They took the tour because they were curious.

“Even though I’m a big scaredy cat, I like to be scared,” Gordillo said. “We were a little scared, but I liked this tour for all the history and stories.”


What: Ghosts of Phoenix tour guides take groups through the historic Hotel San Carlos in downtown Phoenix. Bring a camera.

When: 7 and 8:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through Dec. 11.

Where: Hotel San Carlos, 202 N. Central Ave., Phoenix.

Admission: $13, $7 for ages 8-12.

Contact: 602-414-0004,

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Downtown Phoenix’s Star Walk

[Source: Niki D’Andrea, New Times Jackalope Ranch]

Photo credit: Niki D'Andrea, Phoenix New Times

The Hotel San Carlos in downtown Phoenix has a long and storied history. In operation since 1928, the hotel hosted numerous Hollywood stars in its heyday, including Mae West, Marilyn Monroe, Ingrid Bergman, and Gary Cooper.

In 1993, the owners of the Hotel San Carlos, the Melikian family, installed the “Star Walk” along the sidewalks of Central Avenue and Monroe Street, to commemorate the legendary actors who stayed at the hotel and to celebrate its 65th anniversary.

There are about a dozen gold stars in all, inscribed with notable names and signatures.

Marilyn Monroe has a star here (she stayed at the hotel while filming the movie Bus Stop), along with Mae West, who stayed at the Hotel San Carlos while performing I’m No Angel at the nearby Orpheum Theatre in 1929. Also enshrined in the sidewalk stars are Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, who reportedly spent many romantic nights at the hotel.

The stars themselves are gold, and shine in the relentless Phoenix sun. Monroe’s star gets shade from a nearby tree, but many of the other stars — like those for Jean Harlow, Spencer Tracy, and Gene Autry — give off a glare during the day.

The Star Walk is a must-see for classic movie buffs, but those who also aspire to see the specters of old Hollywood stars should also check out the Hotel San Carlos’ regular “ghost tours.”

The Hotel San Carlos is located at 202 N. Central Avenue. For more information, visit or call 602-253-6668.

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Downtown Phoenix CoolDown


In some parts of the country, August signals the end of summer.  Here in Phoenix, August seems to be the hottest month of the year and just teases you that cooler weather is still another six weeks away.

cooldown002_CS3_adjustedThis got the Downtown Ambassadors thinking, what could we do to make August a little more bearable?  Maybe make summer something we Downtowners could look forward too?  The answer we came up with: pool party.

Okay, we admit, it’s not the most unique idea.  We definitely aren’t the only ones hosting pool parties Downtown, but we are the only ones who could convince the Hotel San Carlos to let us use their pool.  Matter of fact, as we walked up to check out the pool space, the door to the deck mysteriously opened for us – so we figured the San Carlos ghosts were happy to have pool parties back.

So on Friday (8/27), don your hippest poolwear and join us at the Hotel San Carlos for the inauguralDowntown Cooldown, a pool party hosted by the Downtown Phoenix Ambassadors.  We’ll have a DJ along with food & drink specials from 6-10 p.m.  Then we’ll keep the party going at the Ghost Lounge.  This is a 21 and over event. Tickets are $7 online and $10 at the door.

Bottoms up!

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Vanishing Phoenix: lost, but not forgotten


Earlier this year, one of Phoenix’s downtown hotel owners finished writing a book about the architecture the city has lost over the years.

Robert Melikian’s “Vanishing Phoenix” is an homage to an array of buildings in the city that have disappeared over the past century, from hotels such as the Bank Exchange Hotel near Washington and First streets to the old mansions that once lined East Monroe Street.

Melikian, 53, is known in the community as a supporter of historic preservation, which is evident by efforts to preserve his family’s hotel, the Hotel San Carlos.

Melikian answered questions recently about the book and his views on historic preservation:

Question: Why did you write this book?

Answer: I wanted to protect what buildings we have left.

Q: Why do you think some residents feel Phoenix lacks historic identity in its architecture?

A: It’s strongly made up of individuals coming in from other parts of the country. They mostly don’t care about local history because they’re from somewhere else.

Q: Since your book was released earlier this year, what has happened?

A: I’ve been so happy that people have just been coming in to look at the old slides (photographs of old buildings).

Q: Was there a certain building that inspired you to write?

A: The Fox West Coast Theatre on First and Washington (streets) built by S. Charles Lee (in 1930). He built an inferior one in Los Angeles that’s considered by people there a marvelous theater. We had a better one. In 1975, the city bought it. The chandeliers bought for $8,000 in the 1930s sold for $250. They (city officials) wanted to replace the theater with a bus station.

Q: Some historic buildings continue to be torn down. Some members of the community believe the Ramada Inn at Second and Fillmore streets should be protected although the city plans to raze it and build there so Arizona State University can use it to house one of its academic programs. What do you think?

A: In 1956, Marilyn Monroe opened that building. But I don’t advocate saving every historic building. If the use of that building is going to be that useful to society, then so be it.

Q: What message do you want people to take from this book?

A: History sells. People want history. Don’t look at the short-term liability (of preservation). Look at the long-term benefits.

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