Preserving Phoenix’s Modern Past
Writer Shannon Severson
Portrait by Loralei Lazurek
IIn the grand scheme of the most populous U.S. cities, Phoenix is a relative youngster. Yet time and circumstances converged to make it a prime location for mid-century modern architectural design. Modern Phoenix, founded and operated by Alison and Matthew King, is both a comprehensive compendium of the era’s architectural style and a dedicated, proactive organization that educates the public; provides resources to homeowners, developers, and businesses; and features the work of contemporary designers. Essential to the mission of Modern Phoenix are preservation efforts, as many historically significant and beautiful structures have, unfortunately, been the casualties of progress as the area continues to boom.
Prior to the conclusion of World War II, Phoenix existed as a hot and sleepy desert town with an economy primarily based on agriculture, and was just beginning to attract visitors escaping the bitter cold of northern winters. With the growing availability of air conditioning and plenty of inexpensive land, the city was perfectly positioned for the proliferation of mid-century design.
Now working as professors at The Art Institute of Phoenix, Alison and Matthew were high school sweethearts who met as students at Saguaro High School. Her interest in—and talent for—illustration, printmaking, design, photography, and teaching has been life-long and earned her a full-ride to Arizona State University, but ASU didn’t offer a graphic arts degree at the time and she was eager to spread her wings and leave the familiar behind.
It seemed like kismet that both were accepted to colleges in New York City: Alison to the Parsons School of Art and Design, where she pursued an illustration major and Matthew to Eugene Lang College, though he later transferred to Parsons as a furniture design major. The two spent every spare minute together biking and skateboarding through Central Park and exploring as many neighborhoods and museums as possible. That sense of exploration helped to cement their interest in design and architecture, and their partnership.
Each year, the couple returned to Arizona to visit family and brought that same sense of exploration, but they’d inevitably itch to return east—until the day they received a postcard Alison’s parents sent from an Arcosanti exhibit. Intrigued, Alison and Matthew soon secured their attendance at a five-week academic and hands-on workshop during the construction of the East Crescent. They helped with concrete formwork, digging ditches, welding, dry wall and spackle. Alison spent time in the ceramics studio molding clappers for the famous bells.
“It was transformative,” Alison says. “We did whatever was needed, both indoors and out. It was monsoon season in August, the prettiest month of the year with weather that wasn’t too hot and the sky filled with all those amazing clouds.”
They tied the knot in 1994, and after many years of New York living, Alison and Matthew made the decision to return to their roots and settle in Phoenix, at least for a while. They didn’t expect the importance of what they’ve now found and what they’ve formed. Their son, Oscar, actually played a large part in the launch of Modern Phoenix in 2003. His colic was cured only by afternoon drives, so the Kings took the opportunity to explore.
“We began to ask around as to where the good stuff was,” says Alison. “We saw the Wendell Burnette House in Sunnyslope, the Willo District, Ralph Haver neighborhoods, the cool stuff along the canals and all these little pockets that you don’t hear about. We started pulling sales fliers and made it a game to guess the prices.”
Alison began carefully photographing, mapping and cataloging her findings and publishing it all online, long before Facebook or LinkedIn existed. She was particularly fond of Haver and began posting as much about him as she could find, page by page.
In reacquainting themselves with their old stomping grounds, they realized the city had grown up and had a newly thriving art scene. The mid-century design they loved was theirs for the finding.
“It was like peeling away the layers of a story that was so familiar,” says Alison. “My parents actually met as young teachers at Coronado High School, which was designed by Haver and Jimmy Nunn. I grew up with Ralph Haver architecture all around me, I just didn’t have a name for it.”
In 2005, the couple purchased their own Haver home in the Canal North neighborhood, his first residential project. Built in 1945, it’s right next door to the famed architect’s former personal residence. They are regularly in contact with his family now, adding another layer to their experience and their love for his work around the city. Alison isn’t confined to Haver. She also works with the family of Alfred Beadle to maintain an archive of his work and the Modern Phoenix site has listings of both past and present architects whose work fits the style and spirit of mid-century modern.
Modern Phoenix has expanded from a solely residential focus to include an extensive commercial archive as well. From the start, mid-century fans have contacted Alison, asking for more information and interested in seeing these masterpieces in person. Within months of its founding, Modern Phoenix hosted 110 people for its first home tour, albeit informal, of five homes in the Windemere neighborhood.
The tours have grown by leaps and bounds, with Modern Phoenix partnering with various cultural institutions over the years. This year’s tour sold out by noon on the very first day and attracted 1,000 visitors. In March, Modern Phoenix played host to 250 experts from around the country at the Docomomo US National Symposium on Modernism and Climate, utilizing various venues in the area, including Phoenix College, Arcosanti and Taliesin West.
Through their work, the Kings are putting Phoenix on the map as a destination for mid-century modern enthusiasts. They have played a proactive role in preserving historic structures and educating homeowners, developers and businesses about the value of maintaining the integrity of great residential and commercial design while providing an extensive array of resources with which to do so.
“It’s informational, but also inspirational,” says Alison. “If residents or developers want to go back to a certain point in time, they have the visual resources to do that. One thing that I’ve learned through teaching is that sometimes people need to hear the same message a few times, in a few different ways, before they start getting the picture. The positive working relationships we’ve developed have been really productive.”
A particularly high profile project is Modern Phoenix’s ongoing effort to preserve the David and Gladys Wright House, which was quite literally saved at the last minute by a demolition crew member who couldn’t bear to finish the job. A national publicity campaign was launched and the home was saved and is currently undergoing extensive renovation. Alison’s team has served an important advisory role throughout the process. Efforts continue with various entities to ensure solvency in perpetuity and arrange proper zoning to secure public access. The vision is that the home will be open to the public as an educational institution, just as Taliesin West is now.
As Phoenix continues to grow and change, the Kings will keep working to preserve vital history and maintain the treasures of the past for future generations.