Arizona preservationists update strategy to protect historic landmarks

June 14, 2013

The recent fight to save a Phoenix home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright has sparked new interest in protecting Arizona’s historic buildings.

Mesa motel The Buckhorn Baths Motel in Mesa. (Photo by Steve Shadley-KJZZ)

This week in Mesa, preservationists, architects and city planners have gathered to identify culturally significant landmarks that need their attention.

Wright built the house in the Arcadia neighborhood of Phoenix for his son David in 1952.  It went up for sale but developers who bought the property wanted to bulldoze it to make way for new homes, said President of the Arizona Preservation Foundation Jim McPherson.

"When the threat of it being demolished by the past owner came up the community rallied, everyone rallied to save this building," McPherson said.

A Las Vegas attorney came in a few months ago and purchased the Wright home, and a non-profit group is being formed to preserve the property.  Now, there is even talk of setting up an organized shuttle tour of Wright’s designs across the valley. Efforts to save the home galvanized local preservationists attending their annual conference in Mesa this week.

Not too far away from the meeting is another local landmark that could fall victim to the wrecking ball, the Buckhorn Baths Motel near the center of the city. 

“If you come down Main Street, it’s dominated by a monumental sign with a big elk at the top, a beautiful neon sign,”  Mesa Preservation Foundation’s Vic Linhoff said.

Linhoff is standing underneath that big elk sign on a busy street corner. The motel was a real eye-catcher back in the day. It has been closed since 1999 and it’s fallen into disrepair, but last year, Mesa voters approved a bond measure that allows the city to invest in the property.

“Purchase and restoration of this property is pretty expensive" said Linhoff.

Mesa motel President of the Mesa Preservation Foundation Vic Linhoff sits on a bench outside the motel. (Photo by Steve Shadley-KJZZ)

He estimates it would cost about $10 million to convert the Buckhorn into a museum. It was built by husband and wife Ted and Alice Sliger in 1939.

When Ted was drilling a well here, Linhoff said, “he found not potable water, but hot water, mineral water."

So, in the 1940’s, Sliger opened the Buckhorn Baths. It  became a hangout for major league baseball players, legends like Ty Cobb and Gaylord Perry, and some people say this is where the Cactus League was born. But, without the bonds approved by Mesa voters, Linhoff said the motel would continue to deteriorate, and it would face an uncertain future. 

Elsewhere in Mesa, preservationists are finding other projects that may qualify for historic designation. 

“We have two historic districts and both of these districts have homes that were built in the teens and 20’s” said Mesa’s City Planning Director and Historic Preservation Officer John Wesley. “I think we’ve seen more neighborhoods start to express interest in trying to become historic districts over the past couple of years since we’ve gone through this recession.”

Even some homes built after World War II are eligible for historic grants. McPherson said cities that give aging neighborhoods a historic designation will see a pay-off: 

“There have been several studies about the impact of historic preservation designation on property values, and in all of these studies the property values increase," McPherson said.

In fact, bond projects like the one in Mesa are becoming more common in Arizona. Recently, the city of Phoenix purchased the Tovrea Castle. That is the house that looks like a yellow birthday cake atop a hill near the Phoenix Zoo. 

State Historic Preservation Officer James Garrison said Phoenix is prepared to invest $21 million into the Tovrea Castle and its surrounding cactus garden, converting it into some sort of tourist attraction.

  “Because virtually everybody who’s grown up or lived in Phoenix knows this building and is very curious about visiting it," Garrison said.

Preservationists said other possible projects around the state include a new roof for the historic El Tovar Lodge at Grand Canyon and a makeover of the state capitol buildings.


Mesa motel The office at the Buckhorn Baths Motel in Mesa. (Photo by Steve Shadley-KJZZ)