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 is 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.

1929 | Cotswold Revival

509 W. Holly

From 1900 to the 1930s, period revival styles were popular all over the US and especially in Phoenix. Our historic neighborhoods are full to various revival styles, from Tudor and Colonial to Spanish Colonial and Mediterranean. One of my favorite revival styles is the Cottage or Cotswold style. Based on English cottages from the Cotswold region of England, these homes are especially picturesque and remind people of “hobbit” houses. This one, known as the Isobel Noyes Rental House, has got to be one of the best examples in Phoenix. Cotswolds are characterized by use of brick or stone with stucco, and sometimes timbering. The roofs are wood shingle and designed to look like a thick thatched roof — they truly are an art form with their softly undulating and irregular shingles and rounded overhangs. The prominent chimney near the front door is also typical of this style. I really love the irregular stonework around the windows!

1930 | The Baker House

301 W. Almeria Rd.

The Bert J. Freidman/A. B. Baker House is also known as the “Rabbi’s” house by its neighbors in the Willo Historic district. Built in 1930, the Mediterranean Revival home is one of the largest in the neighborhood, with 4 bedrooms, 4 baths and a 700 sq ft. basement. In 1943 the lot adjacent to the Baker House, at the corner of McDowell and 3rd Avenue, was purchased by the Beth El congregation for their first formal home. The Beth El Synagogue was finished in 1951 and included a 12-room school and a home for Rabbi Harr Z. Schechtman. The basement of the synagogue was connected to the basement of the Baker House by at least one tunnel so the Rabbi and the congregants could escape if necessary. The congregation quickly outgrew the space and moved to its current home in north-central Phoenix. Today the synagogue building a pawn shop and the tunnels have been blocked off.

1938 | Little House, Big Surprise!

93 W. Lewis Ave.

This humble red-brick ranch home in the Willo neighborhood holds an amazing secret — a block of wood with the names of the construction crew who built it in 1938, found when past owners remodeled the bathroom. The full text of the block says:

This home was built by Wayne L Gray Construction Co. Men who worked on this home are as follows: Henry B Gray, Neal Gray, Elum Gray, Robert J Discombe, Chester Patton. Built during the months of Sept. and Oct., year 1938. When you find this tablet it will be our proof that homes built by us, LAST! (over)” and on the back it continues “May that year be 1990!

Of course that block of wood is a precious keepsake for the home’s owners, but it’s also a testament to the pride of craftsmanship that went into each of these old homes — even the simplest 2 bedroom, 1 bath, 940 sq ft ranch!

1930 | Adobe Spanish Colonial Revival

58 W. Wilshire Dr.

I love this house because of that window! You should see it at night with a 10ft Christmas tree — stunning. The other thing I love about it is that it’s built of adobe (at least partially). Adobe is the natural building material of the Southwest — the thick walls keep homes cool in summer and warm in winter. The simple mud bricks are often made right on site from the earth that has been removed for the foundations. The owner of this home was so happy when she found the adobe walls while renovating the kitchen. Many adobe home owners have what is known as an “honesty window” where the adobe is visible and this owner left the adobe exposed after the remodel.