Historic Wurth House In Phoenix Connects Community, Generations

Published: Tuesday, January 19, 2016 - 6:10pm
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Lauren Gilger/KJZZ
Kimber Lanning

Do you have to tear down old Phoenix to make way for the new? It’s a question that’s coming up a lot more these days as urban development in downtown Phoenix takes off.

It’s the question driving a downtown Phoenix community to rally behind one historic home on Roosevelt Row in downtown Phoenix: The Wurth House.

Last year, a developer bought the land the Wurth House had been sitting on for more than 100 years and announced the 1100-square-foot brick home would be bulldozed to make way for a new apartment building.

But, that was a story Local First Arizona founder Kimber Lanning said she had heard one too many times.

“All of the properties between 3rd and 5thth Street on the north side of Roosevelt were acquired and demolished,” she said. “To look out my window here, now, and see everything gone, it’s a little bit shocking.”

The Wurth House was built in 1911 by Felix Wurth, a letter carrier who moved here from Kentucky, Lanning said. To her, demolishing yet another historic building along Roosevelt Row went too far.

She owned an empty lot across the street from the Wurth House, so she hatched a plan.

“I quickly grabbed some folks, and we went out and measured it and determined that it would fit on my lot, and that’s how we started the process,” she said.

She hired a company to insert steel beams underneath the house, and lift it up a quarter of an inch at a time, and move it across the street. It has cost her more than $80,000, she said.

“I did it because I really have dedicated my life to building a better city, and I think it’s that important. And I have confidence that other people in Phoenix feel similarly,” Lanning said.

The actual move took about 45 minutes, she said, but the preparation before and after took months.

So, why go through it all for one house?

“To me it’s a small house, but it’s a big win,” she said. “There are a lot of people in Phoenix who feel that we too quickly just tear things down to make way for new development, and sometimes poorly designed new development, at that. And if we want to have a quality city that has a unique sense of character, we need to pay more attention to our smaller, older buildings.”

“We really need this to succeed," said Phoenix City Councilwoman Kate Gallego. Her district covers some of Roosevelt Row, and she chairs the Neighborhoods, Housing and Development Subcommittee, which oversees historic preservation issues and development.

“If Kimber can help protect this house it will be a great model for how we can preserve Roosevelt Row.”

Though the building didn’t qualify for the city’s Historic Property Register, Gallego said protecting these buildings is not only about preserving our city’s identity, it’s a smart business move.

“We want to keep those interesting, unique buildings that show our history,” she said. “So many of our creative artists want to be in unique spaces that have good roots. They look at places like Roosevelt Row or our historic Warehouse District where every building has a story. The decisions were personal. These buildings are unique.”

The city had been tossing around ideas about where to move the Wurth House when it became clear that Lanning could move a lot faster – and cheaper – than the city could to work with the building’s owners, Gallego said.

According to Lanning, the owners had a live demolition permit in hand when she was finally able to convince them to let her have the house. Once the house was moved, the media picked up the story, and that’s when this story gets really interesting.

Alex Wurth was looking through his Facebook feed and saw a headline saying that the Wurth House had been saved by Kimber Lanning.

He had moved to Phoenix from Kentucky a few years earlier and had lived just across the street from the Wurth House. He also knew Kimber Lanning - she had been a speaker at the Children’s Museum of Phoenix where he works.

He noticed that the name was spelled oddly in the article on Facebook, with a "U," just like his name is spelled.

“We actually have this huge genealogy book at the house,” he said, “So, I go in there and I’m looking for Felix Wurth.”

A little bit of digging, and sure enough, he finds Felix. “And there’s materials that he built his house with there on Roosevelt Row. And so I knew in my heart that I had to be connected and related,” he said.

He was right. He emailed Kimber and found out Felix was his great-great-uncle. And he had a host of new family in Arizona that he had never known about.

“I got to meet some cousins,” he said. “I actually met the daughter of Felix Wurth. She’s 96 now, Angela. And it was really special.”

They all had a family reunion recently. They showed Alex pictures of the house when Angela was growing up there.

“I feel like there’s too many coincidences for it to be just a coincidence,” he said. “It’s really magical, and it just shows you how small of a world it really is.”

That’s why Lanning said it’s so important to preserve these stories and these buildings.

“I think people need to really think, 'Do we want to have funky, unique businesses that make downtown Phoenix livable and/or a destination for those who don’t live here?'” Lanning said, “Or do we want to just blade it all and just put up new construction that makes us look every other town U.S.A.?”

Now, Lanning is raising funds to renovate the Wurth House so it can be turned into a welcome center for Roosevelt Row and offices for Local First Arizona. 

An Indiegogo campaign Lanning launched for the house two months ago raised about $18,000 of the $79,000 goal with several hours left to go Tuesday.

And Alex is also helping to raise funds to get the house the renovations it needs. He’s holding a benefit for the Wurth House at the Children’s Museum on January 27th at 5:30 p.m.  

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