The Capitol and legislative chambers in the 1960s, before the erection of the brutalist Executive Office Tower.
Channel 12's Brahm Resnik asked me to nominate the three most significant Arizona political events since statehood. It's a bit like wanting a cinephile to name only three favorite movies. I settled for 1) statehood, which was not a given when it happened; 2) The congressional delegation's ultimately successful decades-long pursuit of Colorado River water, and 3) SB 1070, which is a bright red marker for the hotbed of intolerance, ignorance, extremism and backwardness into which the state has descended. Other events could contend, such as Barry Goldwater's 1952 defeat of Sen. Ernest McFarland, marking the birth of the Republican Party's ascendancy.
One of the most telling political stories, however, doesn't concern politicians or elections, at least not directly. It's about the old capitol building. The copper-domed structure was actually built as the territorial capitol and completed in 1901. The architect was James Riely Gordon, who designed many court houses in Texas, as well as a grand one for Bergen County, N.J. Gordon set aside his usual Romanesque Revival style to create a territorial capitol made from native materials. It was originally intended to be much grander, but the territory cut back funding. Additions made in 1918 and 1938 preserved the Gordon design.
President Kennedy (perhaps apocryphally) quipped that it was the ugliest state capitol in America. This was certainly not true: The Alaska capitol resembles an insurance company office; the Ohio statehouse with its forever-incomplete dome defines homeliness and lack of proportion, and North Carolina's looks like the court house for a small, poor county. The only saving grace for New Mexico's building is that it is in Santa Fe. To me, the old Arizona capitol always held a certain modest grace, particularly when I was growing up and it dominated the vista at the foot of Washington Street. But it's also true, odd and perhaps telling that Montana, which still doesn't have 1 million people, has a much bigger, grander capitol. And otherwise poor, conservative states such as West Virginia, Arkansas and Mississippi boast majestically beautiful statehouses.
Desultory attempts were made to improve the capitol. It didn't help that the grounds flooded regularly until Cave Creek Dam was built. An attractive state building still stands on the southeast corner of 17th Avenue, although it has been shorn of the shade trees and grass that made it an oasis. The 1960 Legislature wings epitomize everything wrong with the architecture of that era, but they were small enough as to not overwhelm the original capitol. That these eyesores with all their deferred maintainence and falling-apart issues could have been sold off shows that old-style land fraud lives on in Arizona. Modernists still pine for the "Oasis" building that Frank Lloyd Wright sketched out as a potential replacement in the late 1950s. It doesn't appeal to me, not least because it would have junked up Papago Park (the proposed location) and the signature atrium looks as if it would do to the humans inside what cruel children do to bugs on summer sidewalks with a magnifying glass. Sorry, we dodged a bullet that Wright's plan never went anywere.
It's important to remember that the capitol you see today buried behind bleak office buildings is not how it presented itself for many decades. Washington west of Seventh Avenue was once the spine for one of the Southwest's most beautiful neighborhoods, including the finest Victorian houses in Phoenix. All those streets that now cut through empty lots or pass dehumanizing stretches of walls and parking garages were once green and leafy, lined with bungalows and art deco/territorial brick apartments holding some of the town's richest residents. It was the definition of walkable. The old county court house, city hall and Carnegie Library were also in this district. At the end of the wide avenue, the capitol presided in perfect harmony. Going west, across the AT&SF railroad tracks, were more neighborhoods of attractive bungalows. One of Phoenix's greatest acts of civic vandalism was to allow the decline and destruction of this area, much of which had better bones than the surviving historic districts.
The other vandalism was the erection in 1974 of the executive tower, a brutal piece of work that obscured the old dome and destroyed the proportions of the sweet original building. It looks much like a prison tower I recall from downtown San Diego, and given some of our governors perhaps the symbolism is fitting. One of my hopes for the centennial has long been that this monstrosity would be torn down and Gordon's original plan would be implemented, with the houses of legislature and executive offices returned to the old capitol. It has about as much possibility of happening as Phoenix re-learning quality place-making. Given the expansion of government since the 1960s and the state's huge population, many new state office buildings have arisen along Washington and Jefferson. They range from the ugly to the laughable (the Attorney General's office, built double its designed length, with only one public entrance and green-mile-long hallways to reach anything. Modern ego architects won't save the capitol mall and the Kooks in charge wouldn't fund quality civic design. Most residents don't even realize what was lost as they zip quickly past in their cars.
Arizona's centennial is a fine time to learn more about state and city in the Phoenix 101 archives.