When the economy crashed at the end of 1929, Phoenix was facing a long hard slog to try to maintain a lifestyle that had only been attained by higher income families. Though Phoenix fared better than most eastern localities, by 1933 almost 10,000 people in the city of about 50,000 were receiving some kind of welfare benefits (p.103, Luckingham, Phoenix, 1989). And there was little money to improve social conditions or infrastructure. Even after war industries brought wealth into the valley, poverty remained a problem. In 1950 the Los Angeles Examiner found a family of seven starving in a labor camp near Phoenix. The father was “a cripple” and sold his blood for food, which ran out before he could sell more. African-American residents in Phoenix were often denied welfare benefits during the Great Depression and had to form their own charitable organizations. Franciscan Father Emmett McLoughlin came to Phoenix in 1933 and spent his life working to improve the south side. He founded a hospital and advocated slum clearance and construction of low-cost public housing. By the 1960s, Phoenix was still unable to provide a decent living for all its residents.
Phoenix could measure up to any American city when it came to bootlegging, drug abuse, illegal gambling, prostitution and public corruption. “Every conceivable kind of illegal activity seemed to flourish in the rapidly emerging metropolis, including white-collar and organized crime” (p.209, Luckingham, Phoenix, 1989). Just before World War Two, the military came to the valley for its good flying weather and built five Army air bases: Luke Field, Williams Field, Falcon Field, and Thunderbird No. 1 and 2. The Navy, in partnership with Goodyear tire opened an aircraft factory and air station. Phoenix and other valley cities were suddenly flooded with jobs and government contracts. But the Army, in order to protect its soldiers, demanded Phoenix clean up vice, and especially, end prostitution. As a result, city leaders at least made their community appear more respectable. But the war did bring lasting change. Factories without smoke stacks, predominately aerospace and electronics plants, began replacing the agricultural economic base.
By 1937, despite the Depression, middle-class families were taking to newly paved highways on cheap vacations. By 1935, Phoenix was located on two cross-country highways, numbered 70 and 80, and two more federal highways crossing the state, north-south Highway 89 and west-east Highway 60. This 1937 ad in Better Homes and Gardens offered a blooming oasis and recommended permanently relocating to Phoenix. The “Valley of the Sun” moniker was adopted in 1934 (p.110, Luckingham, Phoenix, 1989).
Despite the worst economic conditions ever seen, a number of new industries first developed in the 1920s continued to grow in the 1930s, including the highway system, scheduled airline service, bus transportation, motor hotels, radio, cinema with sound and color, self-service supermarkets, iceless refrigeration, and air conditioning. Various air cooling methods began to appear in the 1920s in larger hotels. Some theaters were cooled by blowing air over tons of ice in the basement. Evaporative coolers became common on Phoenix homes in the 1930s. Refrigerated air conditioning, called “dry” air conditioning at the time, was installed in all the Luhrs office buildings in 1932. The Luhrs Hotel became the first refrigerated-AC hotel in Phoenix in 1936. Air conditioning made life in Phoenix enjoyable year-round. “Picture yourself actually leading the sort of leisurely, tranquil, do-as-you-please existence you’ve always wanted, and you’ll have some faint idea of what life is like in this happy, carefree Valley of the Sun Vacationland,” enticed a 1942 Phoenix tourism promotion.
Following World War II, Americans took to the highways in greater numbers and Phoenix was transformed. The main highway from the east, Van Buren Street became lined with a seemingly endless supply of neon marked auto courts, color flagged gasoline stations and cafes surrounded by cars. US 80 left Phoenix on two lanes of concrete with expansion joints along West Van Buren in those days, while US 60 went up Grand Avenue toward Glendale. Today, the site of the Park Lane is a parking lot for the Arizona Dept. of Revenue building.
South Pacific ambience was popular after Hawaii became a state in 1959 and the hospitality industry in Phoenix continued for many years to play upon Hawaiian or Polynesian themes. Examples include Samoan Village, Coconut Grove Motel, Trader Vic’s restaurant in Scottsdale and the Kon Tiki Hotel at 2463 E. Van Buren, shown here about 1962. “A little bit of Waikiki in the heart of Phoenix” opened in 1962 and was popular for decades. Freeways, nationwide chains and franchises eventually depressed the Van Buren hospitality corridor and Kon Tiki was torn down in the 1990s to make way for a parking lot. (See: “Lei’d To Rest. . .” by Dewey Webb, New Times, 15 Dec. 1993; “No Vacancy at Log Cabin Motel,” by Robert L. Pela, New Times, 18 Mar. 2010)
This photo of PHX Sky Harbor about 1965, looking SE shows the $850,000 Terminal One (1952) with circular parking lot and $2.7 million Terminal Two (1962) to the east. Across the runway is the Arizona Air National Guard, Boeing C-97 tanker base. In the middle of landlocked Arizona, a harbor for aircraft officially opened September 2, 1929. The City of Phoenix purchased the facility in 1935. In 1946, largely due to good flying weather, Sky Harbor was the busiest airport in the nation. And there were no accidents of any kind that year. By 1947, TWA was operating 21 flights a day into Phoenix. Terminal One was demolished in 1990, though the tower was saved and relocated.
This photo from about 1957 of the intersection of Washington and Second Streets looking west shows the original City Hall Plaza now occupied by J. C. Penney’s (1953) and Fox Theatre (1931). Within ten years, the big chain stores would begin moving away from the downtown and Washington Street would empty. Today, the block on the left is a parking lot, just as it was during the Depression, 1928-1953. Suburban shopping led to deterioration of the downtown, followed by several attempts to revitalize the urban core.
Phoenix was always a low-density city. But, as the spacious lifestyle attracted more residents, subdivision and strip-mall development spread out for miles. Air pollution, heat islands, bumper-to-bumper traffic and long commutes would eventually threaten the leisurely lifestyle. Phoenix sold its buses to a private company in 1959, only to buy back the failing system in 1971. George Luhrs, Jr., an early high-rise developer and director of the Chamber of Commerce, said in later years that he “preferred gradual growth and was not anxious to see it become a large wicked city, sprawling over a large part of the county, destroying much of the desert, eliminating much of the agriculture and the citrus land.” The population of Phoenix increased 311% during the 1950s, boosted by aggressive annexation.
Black Canyon, the first freeway in Phoenix opened in November 1960 but extended for only seven miles. In this photo, looking south, by Herb McLaughlin, probably from 1963, the McDowell Road overpass can be seen in the distance, before there was an I-10 stack. In the 1950s, Phoenix’s straight and wide streets seemed ideally suited to automobiles while traffic was still light. Freeways were built relatively late, too late some said at the time. In 1973, Phoenix voters said no to an inner loop freeway. Two years later government convinced voters to change their minds. Still, there were only 32 miles of freeway in 1980.
Another building boom downtown began about 1962 and this view looking NE about 1966 shows some of the early projects. At left is First Baptist Church (1929) with the red roof, on the NW corner of Third Avenue & Monroe. Panning right, on Adams Street are two buildings (1928 and one with tall windowless tower 1953) of Mountain States Telephone & Telegraph (now Quest & AT&T), then the tall, black First American Title (1964), 111 W. Monroe, with First National Bank (Phoenix Title & Trust Bldg., 1931) in front, then older buildings along Central Avenue. In the foreground are government buildings along Jefferson Street, the Municipal Complex (1963) with round council chambers, the old City-County Courthouse (1929) with orange roof, and two blocks between Jefferson and Madison filled with Maricopa County Complex (1965). The slim Luhrs Tower (1930) and the Luhrs parking garage are to the right. Hotel Westward Ho with TV tower is at upper center. Uptown Business District high-rise buildings around Central & Osborn can be seen at upper left.
The Salt River Valley really isn’t a valley. The many square miles of wide open and fairly flat land that offered early settlers the prospect of easy farming is actually a series of flood plains along stream beds and alluvial slopes coming down from the mountains. As development expanded floods threatened. Heavy rain flooded Phoenix homes twice in 1963. A deluge of rain came in June 1972, draining away down Indian Bend Wash. Large areas of Scottsdale submerged under five or more feet of water. Storm runoff broke the banks of the Arizona Canal flooding Phoenix neighborhoods all the way to the north Central Avenue business district. A 1993 flood in the Salt River virtually cut off transportation between Phoenix and Tempe. Despite the appearance of an abundance of water, flood irrigation, ornamental fountains spraying into the air, homes on the shores of artificial lakes, Phoenix has long suffered from a water shortage. As Phoenicians worked to build the lush oasis, sometimes their goals remained in the distance, staying just out of reach, like a shimmering mirage on the desert.
Despite all its problems, Phoenix still seemed to have fewer difficulties than other urban areas in the 1950s and 60s. For many middle class families during those years life was good. New homes, mid-century modern designed churches, schools and commercial buildings were going up everywhere. Cheap recreational opportunities abounded. In Papago Park you could climb Hole In the Rock, tour the botanical garden, play golf, go to the zoo, or go just across Van Buren Street to enjoy the rides at Legend City amusement park or watch Major League baseball practice in winter. During those decades, even lower income residents could believe life was improving and civilization progressing. Arizona Highways magazine observed in 1964, “when men like builder John Long appeared on the scene offering three-bedroom homes with swimming pool for $11,600, housing in Phoenix started to change. There is no other city in the United States that, dollar for dollar, can offer the value to be found in Phoenix. Low cost housing remains one of the strongest factors in the changing face of Phoenix.”
Park Central Shopping Center opened in 1957 at 3418 N. 7th Avenue, two miles north of the state capitol, and became the city’s first mall. It was later called Park Central Shopping City, then Park Central Mall and is now known simply as Park Central, with mixed use by offices and small shops. It began a change in the way city dwellers shopped, moving away from the previous practice of walking sidewalks among storefronts and instead, driving a personal automobile to a parking lot in front of a strip mall. Then in the 1960s, enclosed walking malls became the ideal. Now, shopping seems to be returning to strip malls—and something different, big box stores. Phoenix has seen it all, and can serve as an object lesson.
The 1960s building boom saw the first tall buildings on north Central Avenue close to Park Central Mall. This 1963 view of the intersection of Central & Osborn (lower left corner) shows (from left) Executive Towers apartments (completed 1964) at 22 stories (207 W. Clarendon, converted to condos in 1971), Guaranty Bank (1960) at 20 stories, and Del Webb Building (1962) at 17 stories (3800 N. Central, remodeled in 1989). In the foreground is Osborn School, soon to be demolished for the construction of Financial Center (1964, heightened in 1968). Part of Osborn School, half the two-story building in center, was built in 1892. Another high-rise, Del Webb Towne House at 23 stories was added in 1964 in the block north of the Del Webb Building.
This photo taken by Don Keller in September 1963 shows a small portion of the Arcadia neighborhood, looking west, with Arcadia High School barely visible at top (click on picture to see full size) and Indian School Road following the Arizona Canal at top right. Osborn Road is lined with trees, running in front of Ingleside Junior High and what will become Arcadia Park (at right). The “T” intersection at lower left is 56th Street (running left to right) and Earll with a nearly full parking lot at the Motorola plant. Arcadia, at the base of Camelback Mountain northeast of Phoenix and just west of Ingleside, was planted in citrus groves beginning in 1919. You can see remnants of citrus rows in the photo. It soon became an elite location for estates. When this photo was taken, it was an example of one of the finest neighborhoods for middle class families with good incomes, offering spacious lots and large ranch style homes with pools. The line of homes at bottom borders Arizona Country Club (1946). Motorola opened a research and development facility at 56th Street & Earll in 1950. It became an electronics factory 1962-1982. Today it’s an office. And an EPA Superfund Site since 1989, the origin of an underground water pollution plume of cadmium, chromium, arsenic and solvents that has migrated all the way to downtown Phoenix. There is a cleanup process now in place.
Construction continued downtown with more and taller buildings darkening streets. This view from about 1977 shows one of the last rows of old buildings along Washington opposite Patriots Square (1974). The intersection in the foreground is Jefferson and First Avenue. Facing the square (from left) is the former J. J. Newberry 3-story building (1937), a rebuild of the old Monihan Building, the 4-story former S. H. Kress store, the 2-story former site of J. C. Penney and the 6-story Goodrich Building. Looming over this block in the background are (from left) the high-rise Arizona Bank (1976, now US Bank), Valley Center (1972, now Chase), rebuilt Adams Hotel (1975, now Wyndham), and Hyatt Regency (1976) with revolving restaurant on top. There was another pause in downtown construction during poor economic conditions 1976-1986. Then the old buildings in this view were demolished for construction of Renaissance Square (1987 & 1990).
Arizona Development Board, The Arizona Story, (ca1962)
Arizona Highways, August 1943, “Phoenix. . .a frontier town that grew up” (entire issue)
Arizona Highways, April 1957, “Phoenix—City In the Sun” (entire issue)
Arizona Highways, March 1964, “The Changing Face of Phoenix” (entire issue)
Holy Trinity Greek History Committee, Greeks In Phoenix (2008)
Arthur G. Horton, An Economic, Political & Social Survey of Phoenix. . . (1941)
George H. N. Luhrs, Jr. (1895-1984), The George H. N. Luhrs family in Phoenix. . . (1984) manuscript at ASU Library.
Emmett McLoughlin (1907-1970), People’s Padre, (1954)
Lowell Parker, Arizona Towns & Tales, (1975)
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Report on Flood of 22 June 1972. . . (1972)