Phoenix Towers Was Arizona’s First Residential High-Rise 60 Years Ago

Published: Thursday, November 2, 2017 - 4:01pm
Updated: Thursday, November 2, 2017 - 4:09pm
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(Photo by Annika Cline - KJZZ)
Phoenix Towers still stands on Central Avenue today after more than half a century.

There’s a high-rise on Central Avenue that hit the big 60 this year, and the people who live inside celebrated that birthday like you would your own good friend.

For it’s a jolly good building ... and nobody can deny, when it comes to Phoenix, 60 is a pretty ripe age for a high-rise. The Phoenix Towers will be featured in an Urban Living Tour this Saturday.

It was Feb. 24, 1957, and the paper boys and girls of Phoenix had a hefty edition of The Arizona Republic to toss onto front porch steps that morning. Nineteen pages of that paper were about one building. The headline: The City Grows Up With Phoenix Towers.

“Nineteen pages, think about that. They took out a 19-page insert to say, this is who we are. We hit the big time now! We’re a big city, we’re not just a cow town,” said Dan Shilling, who has lived in Phoenix Towers since 2000.

We met in the lobby, where pages from that newspaper article are on display in large frames. Details about the project are next to ads for vinyl floor tiles and Carnation instant milk crystals. This 14-story building was such a big deal because it was the first residential high rise in Arizona.

“A lot of very strong vertical and horizontal lines, cement, bare cement showing. Columns showing,” Shilling pointed out.

But then in contrast … it’s pink.

“Yeah. And it’s always been pink as far as I know.”

Today the pastel color might be the building’s most noticeable quality, now that so many other tall buildings have popped up around it. But Shilling — like a tour guide in a museum — can point out all the details that made this building the talk of the town.

“First underground parking garage in the Southwest,” he said.

On the 7th floor, we emerged from the elevator to an open-air hallway, another hallmark of the building. One side overlooks the roof of the Heard museum.

“And that is a community garden for our residents right there. That used to be shuffleboards,” Shilling laughed. “Some things changed since 1957 — community gardens instead of shuffleboard. We have a dog park on that side.”

That used to be a mini golf course. The 21st-century residents have different interests, but they’re proud that the building itself hasn’t been erased.

We moved to the other side of the passage, looking west.

“Almost every building you’re looking at here… This is the Dial building,” Shilling said, pointing toward downtown Phoenix. “Almost every one of those mid-rises there, they’re all within the last year or two. Yeah, boy, the face of this town has changed.”

The light rail slides down Central Avenue, through a scrambled timeline of architecture, with Phoenix Towers marking the mid-50s. It’s a grandmother of sorts to these other residential buildings, because when it was first built, some people scoffed at the idea.

“The argument was, in the fifties, Phoenix is sort of suburbia on steroids. It’s spread out, it’s horizontal living. So there was a sense that this wasn’t going to work in Phoenix.”

But it did. Today you’ve got an apartment boom downtown.

But don’t call Phoenix Towers an apartment building. It’s actually a co-op, which you still don’t see a lot of here. That basically means everyone’s unit is like a share in a company. Everyone pitches in for repairs; everyone has a say in what changes.

“You’re part of a really interesting, unique story of Phoenix’s history,” Shilling said.

The residents decided to recognize that history by nominating the building for the National Register of Historic Places.

“That’s when your building turns 50, so in 2007 we decided to apply for it,” Shilling said.

And they got it. Sure, it makes repairs a little trickier; when they replaced all the windows they had to find windows that looked just like the old ones. But it means the Towers are here to stay, no matter who moves in.

It gives a new meaning to that headline from 1957. The city continues to grow up with Phoenix Towers.

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