1925 | Rancho Ko-Mat-Ke

1346 E. South Mountain Ave.

In 1925 the population of Phoenix was just over 30,000 and the city limits lay over 6 miles north of what is now South Mountain Park. In that year, John and Helen Albrecht purchased 36 acres of citrus and date groves south of the Highline Canal and began construction of their two-story Mission Revival home. The house has 5 bedrooms — each with its own bathroom — and is built of tufa, a volcanic stone that is lightweight and soft, making it a good building material. The fireplace in the main sitting room and the archways are also made of tufa.

The Albrechts called their home Rancho Ko-Mat-Ke, and I went down a bit of a rabbit hole trying to find the origin or meaning of that name. An AZCentral article states that the phrase means “hump-turtle’s back” in the O’odham language. However, a small town in the Gila River Indian Community is called Komatke (Komaḍk in O’odham) and according to its Wikipedia page the name refers to the Sierra Estrella Mountains. I also found a 2017 article in the Arizona Republic that suggests the name refers to “a blue hazy mountain” and may have been an early name for South Mountain Park, which brings us full circle, doesn’t it? If any of you have additional info on the meaning of Ko-Mat-Ke, please leave a comment!

The family rented rooms in their “spacious country house” to vacationers from October through June for $35-$70 per week. The property had areas for shuffleboard, badminton and croquet, as well as glassed-in sun porches and views of the city to the north. John Albrecht died in 1945 and the property changed hands several times before being acquired by the city of Phoenix in 1972 and repurposed as the Southern Division of the Phoenix Parks Department. You can find the house today in Circle K Park at 13th St. and South Mountain Ave.

Historic photos by McCulloch Brothers Inc. 1940. Courtesy of ASU Libraries Digital Repository.

1923 | Frank and Sarah Hilgeman House

333 W. Loma Lane

Good luck trying to see this house. The only photo I could get is from the back corner, showcasing the storage room that was a later addition. This home was unknown to me until I saw a reference to the “Rock House” while researching another property. Thanks to its recent addition to the Phoenix Historic Property Register, it is now officially named the Frank and Sarah Hilgeman House and was built around 1923 by Frank Hilgeman and his son.

The Hilgemans moved to Phoenix from Indiana in 1919 because Frank’s wife, Sarah, had tuberculosis. The story is that Frank, Sarah and their three children lived in a tent near the canal at 7th Ave. and Dunlap for several months to make sure the hot, dry weather would help Sarah’s health. She started to improve and the family moved into a wood-frame house near 15th Avenue and Butler. In 1923 Frank bought 20 acres of citrus groves on the north side of Northern Avenue between 3rd and 7th Avenues. Soon he started to build a home of his own design out of local malapai stone hauled from Sunnyslope mountain in his old truck.

It was fairly common at the time for people to design their own homes, whether or not they were built by hand. Homes of this type are known as Vernacular, an architectural term meaning native to a specific area — also known as folk architecture. The house took 3-4 years to build, with the basement acting as temporary housing for the family until the first floor was complete. Frank used Salt River stone for the foundation and the chimney to contrast with the dark malapai stone. In 1941 the 20 acres was divided into two plots, and Frank sold off the Eastern half containing the Rock House. Sometime after his death in 1944 the plots were further subdivided into multiple lots. As a result, the Rock House lost its Northern Avenue frontage and now has a Loma Lane address. The current owner successfully petitioned for the property’s inclusion on the Phoenix Historic Property Register in 2015, preserving an interesting piece of Phoenix history.

Historic photos: Phoenix Historic Preservation; AZ Central

1935 – 37 | Phoenix Homesteads

I’ve discussed a specially-designed neighborhood before when I talked about Idylwilde Park. Phoenix Homesteads is another purpose-built neighborhood and one of our historic districts and a rare surviving example of one of the New Deal’s more controversial attempts to put the country back to work.

The Homesteads was a program of the Subsistence Farming Division of the US government, as part of the “back-to-the-land” movement. The program’s concept was to create low-income housing on one- to five-acre plots where families could grow vegetables and citrus and raise chickens and other small livestock. Families were required to have part-time industrial employment, so the location — north of Thomas and west of 28th St. — was chosen based on its relative proximity to local industries. These families applied to the program and rented the homes and land they worked. The program was controversial because some thought it sounded too much like communism. In total, only 35 such communities were developed nationwide and Phoenix Homesteads is the only one in Arizona.

If you’ve ever driven through it, even by accident, you would have recognized you were in a unique place. The flood irrigated neighborhood is lush with vegetation. There are many varieties of trees here — Washington Palms, Aleppo Pines and many types of fruit trees trees — and they are so large they touch over the street. The large trees and thick vegetation are a large part of what makes this area special. Homes were modest, Pueblo Revival style built of mud adobe bricks that were made on site. Floorplans were not standardized, so each of these homes is different.

Over the years the area has become a garden oasis in the middle of town. Owners paint their adobes beautiful colors, plant amazing wildflower gardens and add artwork to their yards. The Phoenix Homesteads have a great website with lots of historical material, and most of these historic images came from that site.

1895 | William J. Murphy House

7514 N. Central Ave./ 10 W. Orangewood

This imposing, but very well hidden, Victorian home is one of less than 50 pre-1900 homes that still exist in Phoenix. It was built by William J. Murphy, a businessman and developer who moved to Arizona from Ohio in 1880 and initially worked for the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad before prospering as a developer. Murphy is credited with building the Arizona Canal in 1885, developing the city of Glendale, and introducing citrus and sugar beets to the area. Murphy is also responsible for building Grand Avenue in order to draw people from the growing city of Phoenix to the new towns of Peoria and Glendale.

In 1895, Murphy purchased 10 acres along along Central Avenue where he built a ranch for his family, including this large Victorian home. He saw the agricultural potential of land along the canal and planted over 1,800 citrus trees, imported from California, on his ranch — marking the birth of the citrus industry in Phoenix.

The 3-story home is built of painted brick with a wood shake roof and includes a long, shaded veranda where the family spent many afternoons. Typical of the Victorian style, it is adorned with “gingerbread” accents and dormer windows. The family had picnics and played croquet on a generous lawn that separated the house from Central Ave. This part of the property was later subdivided and a much newer residence now sits between Central Ave. and the Murphy house. In order to see the home, you must drive west on Orangewood Ave. and even then, it’s hard to see!

The distinctive streetscape along Central Ave. from Bethany Home Road to the Arizona Canal was Murphy’s creation and looks today very much as it did in the late 1800s. He was responsible for planting rows of Ash and Olive trees along the irrigation ditches that run paralleled to this part of Central Ave., and for establishing the Murphy Bridal Path*, a multi-use path that runs along the east side of Central Ave. The streetscape from Bethany to the Arizona Canal is on the Phoenix Historic Register, and has been nominated to the National Register of Historic Places.

*The path was named for Murphy in the 1940s by the Arizona Horse Lover’s Club

Historical photos courtesy of the Arizona Historical Society and the Arizona Capitol Times.

1912 | The James C. Norton House

The Norton House today

2700 N. 15th Avenue

Dr. James Norton came to Phoenix in 1892 to become first territorial veterinarian of Arizona. In 1912 he purchased acreage north of town where he established a dairy and built this imposing home for his wife Clara and their children. I have seen the house referred to as Mission Revival, and I suppose it has some of those qualities, but I think it’s more Italianate/Renaissance Revival. In any case, it must have seemed an elegant and imposing structure, looking much as it does today, sitting alone on a large grassy lawn (a favorite place for croquet and picnics). The house had a large fireplace in the main living room and one in an upstairs bedroom, of which there were 5. Mahogany detailing and beamed ceilings made for an impressive interior. The ceiling beams were hand painted with vine tendrils to match the stained glass windows in the formal dining room. Along the back was a kitchen with butler’s pantry and maid’s quarters, while upstairs a large sleeping porch ran along the west side. The home was one of the first in the country to have a cooling system — a early version of evaporative cooling.

Norton saw the potential of his land for development, and in 1927 he platted a section to create Del Norte Place, a really beautiful neighborhood west of 15th Ave. that Norton called “the countryside west of town.” The homes were mostly small cottage revival styles on tree-lined streets and sold for $5,000 – $7,000. Of course, once the depression hit, the building boom slowed down and by 1934 Norton got out of the home building business. Times were hard, and so he sold his remaining 140 acres and the house to the city. With the addition of another 60 acres from other sources (including Dwight Heard) the city could create its first recreational park.

The plan for a “Class A” park.

The 200-acre Encanto Park opened in 1937 and was constructed largely by the Works Progress Administration — the New Deal program that built so many public works projects across the US. The park is now on the National Register of Historic Places and included 2 golf courses, a band shell (now gone), lagoons for fishing and boating, a club house, tennis courts, an archery range and plenty of room to run and play. Today the Norton house is used by the City of Phoenix Parks and Rec as administrative offices, and will be going through an extensive renovation soon.

Historic photos courtesy of Historic Preservation Office of the City of Phoenix Neighborhood Services Department

1917 | The Ellis-Shackelford House

1242 N. Central Ave.

At the turn of the century, much of the small city of Phoenix was clustered just north of the Rio Salado’s wide flood plane. After the town suffered through several devastating floods those who could afford to moved to higher ground north of town. During the prosperous teens and twenties, the wealthy began to build Victorian and Queen Anne mansions along Central Avenue (then called Center Street) in an area once known as “Millionaire’s Row.” The Ellis-Shackelford House is the last remaining (intact) mansion in this area. There are a few other mansions left along Central — most familiar are the Cole Mansion and the Baker House, which together make up the Old Spaghetti Factory. But the Ellis-Shackelford house is the only mansion that remains true to its original form.

Dr. William Ellis moved to Phoenix from Ohio in 1907 and helped establish the Arizona Deaconess Hospital, now known as Good Samaritan. Dr. Ellis employed architect R. A. Gray to design the house, which he built for his wife Reba and daughter Helen. The home was completed in 1917, and employed a number of innovative technologies that were not common in Phoenix such as a cistern to catch rainwater coming off the roof, a solar water heater, central vacuum system, and electricity throughout the house. Stylistically the house is a combination of the Prairie Style* with Mediterranean touches, such as the tiled roof and double wooden brackets under the eaves. High quality detailing included a mahogany staircase and trim imported from the Philippines. The house is three stories with a full basement for a total of 6,600 sq ft. of living space and situated on an acre lot. Daughter Helen and husband Gordon Shakelford occupied the house until 1964. Afterwards it was converted into a boys home, the Arizona Historical Society Museum and now houses Arizona Humanities. Like “Frenchy” Vieux, this house was slated to be demolished during the construction of I-10, but was saved and completely restored in 2013. It can be rented for events — check here for more info.

*For more on Prairie Style architecture, visit the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust

Historical images courtesy of the Arizona Historical Society.

1912 | “Frenchy” Vieux

508 W. Portland St.

This house is certainly a standout in the Roosevelt Historic District. It sits among many large Craftsman bungalows along Portland St., but it bears no resemblance to that popular style from the early 19th century. The overall impression is low and horizontal, even though it is a two-story house. A 75′ veranda runs along the southern elevation and features a large round extension of the porch at the SE corner of the home. The National Register of Historic Places inventory of homes in the Roosevelt Historic District calls this house “one of the few, if not the only example of an Italian Villa (Italianate) style residence in the Salt River Valley,” but I disagree. “Frenchy” Vieux has the low profile (accentuated by the second floor dormers) and deep eaves typical of the Prairie Style.* As is indicative of Period Revival homes in the Phoenix area, the architect took liberties to incorporate some Classical and possibly Mediterranean influences into his design — such as the columns that line the veranda and details on planters and lamps — but the primary elements are Prairie.

The house cost $10,000 to build and was designed by Leighton G. Knipe, a Los Angeles architect who designed many homes and public buildings in Phoenix, for Marcellin “Frenchy” Vieux, who acted as his own contractor at a . Vieux came to Phoenix from France around 1904 and made his fortune as a concrete contractor. In fact, you might see the “Frenchy” Vieux stamp on sidewalks around the older parts of Phoenix. The one pictured above is right in front of the house. As you might expect, Vieux built his house primarily out of concrete, including the retaining wall around the yard and the decorative flower pots, columns and light fixtures. After Vieux’s death, the house was used as a music school and then subdivided into apartments. It was eventually acquired by the City of Phoenix as part of the right of way for I-10, and may have been torn down under the freeway’s original design. However, the city’s plans changed and lucky for us “Frenchy” Vieux is still standing today!

*For more on Prairie Style architecture, visit the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust

Note: I will feature an Italianate home — The Norton House — in a future post.

1929 | Martha Shemer’s Childhood Home

 

317 W. Cypress

Shemer Art Center

This has got to be one of the prettiest houses in Willo (IMHO). This Spanish Colonial Revival home sits on a double lot and was built in 1929 by prominent Phoenix builder, J. H. Kline. It’s classic Spanish Revival architecture, with a low-pitched red tile roof, small front patio, large picture windows, and that lovely rounded front door. But take a closer look at the shape of the large picture windows – those are Tudor-arched windows. So much for stylistic purity, right?

This house is also interesting to me because it was the childhood home of Martha Evvard Shemer, founder of the Shemer Art Center on Camelback Road in the Arcadia neighborhood. Martha moved to Phoenix when she was a child and went to Phoenix Union High School. She got married instead of going to college, but she had a keen knack for real estate and made a fortune buying land, holding it and selling for a profit. The legend is that she invested in acres of land on the South side of Camelback Mountain when there wasn’t much of anything around there. People thought she was making a mistake. Then she bought land on the north side of the mountain and people thought she had lost her mind. Boy did she prove them wrong! In the late 1980s she purchased the house that is now the Shemer Art Center. It was an Arcadia landmark and she wanted to make sure it was preserved so she donated the house and the land to the City of Phoenix, who turned the responsibility for it over to the newly created Commission for the Arts. If you haven’t been there, go. It’s truly a Phoenix Point of Pride.

1936 | The Miracle House

306 W. Lewis

 

The New Deal was President Roosevelt’s response to the Great Depression. It created a number of reforms and new administrative departments to put the economy back on track and get people to work. One of these new departments was the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). The goal of the FHA was to improve building standards and make home ownership accessible through FHA-insured mortgages. The impact the FHA had on the housing market cannot be underestimated — the number of new homes built in the Phoenix area increased almost 900% from 1934 to 1936. Most of these homes were built according to the new FHA building standards for a “modern” home. To promote this new approach to home building, the FHA built demonstration houses (two in Willo and one in Palmcroft) showcasing the new standards. But the FHA wasn’t the only organization building demonstration houses…

In 1936 the Arizona State Firemen’s Association built their own “fireproof” demonstration house, which they called the Miracle House. This modernistic house was constructed of fire resistant materials including adobe walls, concrete floors, steel casement windows and an asbestos roof. The home also boasted a rounded dining area lined with windows on the south-facing side of the house designed for passive-solar heating in winter. The asbestos roof has been replaced, but otherwise this house remains generally the same as it was in the 30s.

1928 | The Indian House

2040 Encanto Drive SE

 

When land developer, Dwight Heard, started work on his new high-end community, Encanto, he envisioned it to be the “Bel Aire” of Phoenix, where local movers and shakers would build stunning homes on its curvelinear, palm-tree-lined streets. In order to attract buyers he built “model homes” that showcased the skill of his designers and builders. These were not model homes in the modern sense, they were demonstration houses that highlighted the quality, design and modern conveniences that could be incorporated into any of the custom homes built in Encanto. The “Indian House” as it was known, is one of these model homes. Built in the Pueblo Revival style, it provides us with a distinctive impression of the pueblos that dot the New Mexico and Arizona landscape. The house is constructed of block, but designed to look like plastered adobe with uneven surfaces and rounded corners and parapet walls. Originally wood beams, known as vigas, protruded from the roofline and rustic wooden ladders tied the various levels together.

The Pueblo Revival style grew in popularity largely due to hotelier Fred Harvey’s romantic view of the Southwest and its native people. In the late 1800s, Harvey started a chain of hotels along the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe railroad line, which helped spur tourism to the Southwest. His landmark hotels, such as La Posada and La Fonda in Santa Fe, New Mexico and others including El Tovar at the Grand Canyon, provided visitors with comfortable accommodations and an idealized notion of local architectural traditions. His popular “Indian Detours” — coach tours that took visitors into Indian Country — showcased Native American arts and crafts that travelers of the time found irresistible. The fever for Indian art and design that spread across the West is epitomized by The Indian House, which stands as a noteworthy example of this style.

Side note: this house is right around the corner from the Joe Barta House I featured in another blog post.