This blog explores the history of Phoenix, Arizona and a little bit of Los Angeles and San Francisco, California

Why Phoenix, Arizona tears down its old buildings all of the time


If you've lived in the Phoenix, Arizona area for a while, like I have, you will find yourself saying, “whatever happened to the old buildings?” And you don't even have to be all that much interested in history, you may just be wondering what happened to your favorite restaurant, which all of the sudden has disappeared and been replaced by a Walgreens on that corner.

I like to time travel. And if my calculations are correct, future generations of Phoenicians will be asking, “whatever happened to the old Walgreens?” And that's because Phoenix tears down its old buildings all of the time, and has been doing that since it was founded, in 1870.

The reason is growing pains, which Phoenix has had since the day it was founded. It is quite a success story! I collect old photos of Phoenix, and I am seeing a pattern. Buildings go up, more people move in, buildings are torn down down, new buildings are built. It's what I have always called Phoenix “re-inventing itself”.

It started with the original buildings in Phoenix, which were made of adobe and wood. And I'm talking about downtown Phoenix here, in the 1870s. When the railroad arrived in Phoenix, in 1887, those old buildings were torn down and replaced with buildings made of brick.

The next major change in Phoenix happened with the prosperity of the 1920s. A huge building boom happened, and the old territorial buildings were torn down and replaced by "skyscrapers", such as the the Luhrs Building (built in 1925) and the Professional Building (pictured above, which was completed in 1932). Most of the people that I talk to about Phoenix consider these to be the classic old buildings, but really, they were the third wave. Old-timers must have been puzzled every time they rode into town, to see their old buildings had vanished, again and again.

After World War II, everything really gets going in Phoenix. And for most people living in Phoenix today, those are the old buildings of Phoenix. You know, the 1950s neighborhoods. That's “Mid-Century Modern”. That's the fourth wave.

By the early 1970s, downtown Phoenix was a terribly run-down and dangerous place to be. If you look at old photos, it may seem as if the city had just gone and torn down block after block of beautiful Victorian neighborhoods. But really, they were fighting against some serious urban decay by that time. If you remember downtown Phoenix in the 1970s, it was a pretty rough place. Red-light districts, X-rated movie theaters, flophouses. The Phoenix of the late 1970s and early 1980s were the fifth wave. And if you've gone downtown recently, you are seeing the sixth wave, or maybe the seventh wave.

If yours is the Phoenix of the 21st Century, you may not recognize the Phoenix of the twentieth, or nineteenth, century. And if the past record of Phoenix is anything to go by, in another couple of decades, you won't recognize Phoenix, either. And you will be asking, “why did they tear all of the old buildings down?

Above photo - The Professional Building, southeast corner of Central and Monroe. Built in 1932, it’s still there.