Fascinating Town in the Sonoran Desert
If you want to experience an awesome major city in a very arid part of the American west then you should pay Phoenix a visit
Phoenix is the capital and the most populous city of Arizona and has the fifth biggest population in the entire United States. It’s a based in the Salt River Valley and is appropriately nicknamed the Valley of the Sun. The city is very spread out and it is only within the last 10-15 years that investments have been done in developing the city centre. Downtown is not the most happening area but there are still plenty of things you can do.
If you arrive by plane it is really easy going from Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport to the city centre. Take the Sky Train from the airport to 44th Street. From here you can catch the Metro Light Rail down to the city. The Light Rail is also a convenient way to travel around Downtown as well.
The Downtown Phoenix Ambassadors
If you need advice or have any questions while you are in town you can contact the Downtown Phoenix Ambassadors, located in the heart of Downtown at 101 North 1st Avenue #190 facing Adams Street. At their office you will find maps, leaflets and all sorts of inspirational material for things to do while you are in town. Ambassador staff can also be found all around the streets of the Downtown area where they assist and help people out.
They are easy to recognise as they all wear bright orange polo shirts. They are extremely service minded, helpful, always friendly and willing to go the extra mile to help you out. This is really impressive. It’s a non-profit organisation that is partially founded by the city and the businesses in the area. If there is something you want to do or have in mind, just ask them. For instance they actually do walking tours of Downtown free of charge lasting between 1 hour and 15 mins and 1½ hours.
The Grid Bikes – City Bikes
You can easily explore the Downtown area by foot but now there is also the option of renting city bikes via Grid Bikes that are stationed at various points around the city centre. Just note that as per the conditions you are only allowed to ride the bikes within the boundaries of the city. If you leave this area you may be fined. The bikes are installed with a GPS system, but who knows, they may not be that strict.
The system is not as user friendly as for instance the DecoBikes system of Miami Beach. With Grid Bikes you have to pre-book and pre-pay online or via your smartphone. Paying by credit card at the docking stations like in Miami Beach is not an option. Basically the system is not created for long rides such as a half day or a full day, but it’s more for short rides around town for an hour or so. If you want to go a bit further like to the outskirts of town you can hire bikes via a shop called Bike Force located at 112 North Central Avenue #8.
The Guantlet…A Film by Clint Eastwood
The Clint Eastwood film “The Gauntlet” was, among other places, filmed in Phoenix in 1977 and if you walk around in the city centre, especially down Adams Street, you will notice where the opening and ending scenes were filmed. Some of the buildings are still around but you can also see how much the city has changed. The entrance to the Phoenix Convention Center from Adams Street and 2nd Street is where the opening scene was shot where Clint Eastwood exits his car and a bottle falls onto the ground. This is where the City Hall is located in the film which is actually the incorrect location in reality.
On the corner of Adams and 44 North 1st Street, a tan building is located with a Hanny’s restaurant at street level. If you look to the top of the building at the section facing Adams Street you will see a wide balcony. This is one of the spots where the policemen shot at the bus in which Clint Eastwood and Sondra Locke drove towards the City Hall at the end of the movie. The ending scene is at the exact same spot as the opening scene at the Phoenix Convention Center.
“The Gauntlet” is a brilliant film directed by Clint Eastwood. Some of the shooting scenes are over the top, but you have to take it for what it is and it is fiction. The plot is really clever and has several interesting twists along the way. As always Clint Eastwood is awesome and his then real life girlfriend Sondra Locke does a good job and is actually a very underrated actress. Eastwood plays a weary cop with a bit of an alcohol problem called Ben Shockley. He has been assigned to go from Phoenix to Las Vegas to pick up a prostitute called Gus Mally, played by Locke, and bring her back to Phoenix.
Shockley is being told by his superior that Mally is an unimportant witness for a unimportant trial. The further you get into the story it becomes more and more apparent that this is not true and that Locke has Mob ties. Initially it was the plan that the movie should star Marlon Brando and Barbra Streisand. Brando withdrew and Steve McQueen was the second choice, but due to a conflict between him and Streisand, Eastwood and Locke were chosen instead.
The CityScape Area
The CityScape area, which is based around Central Avenue between 1st Avenue and 1st Street and Washington Street and Jefferson Street, is pretty nice and includes a small shopping area. During winter there is an ice rink at Central Street which is really popular. There are not a whole lot of opportunities for shopping, but in Downtown most shops and restaurants are located around the CityScape area and the Arizona Center on Van Buren Street. Mind you, CityScape is not only an area for dining and shopping but also a development consisting of residential, office and hotel sections.
The Arrogant Butcher at 2 East Jefferson Street #150 is a cool little spot where you can get a good meal and some great microbrew. Just bear in mind that the portions are pretty small and it is a bit pricy. Another good option is the Italian restaurant The Strand right next door at 2 East Jefferson Street #113 which is a bit less expensive but also good quality.
The Many Amazing Historic Buildings
There are some nice historic buildings around Downtown. The Old Phoenix City Hall, located at 17 South 2nd Avenue, is a beautiful structure from 1928 which operated as the city hall until 1994 and is still used by the city in addition to the new city hall across the street. The top part of the Old City Hall was used as a jail as well. As mentioned earlier, the building used in the film “The Gauntlet” as the city hall is not the correct building.
The Maricopa County Courthouse which was also built in 1928, is located at 125 West Washington Street and the architectural style is Spanish Revival. It is a part of the same complex as the old city hall and the two combined are known as the County-City Administration Building.
The Orpheum Theatre is located at 209 West Adams Avenue, the architectural style is Spanish Revival and opened in 1927. The theatre was used for vaudeville acts in the day for the nationwide Orpheum Circuit. It’s a beautiful historic building, both the interior and exterior, and note the broad horizontal band at the top of the building which has some cool details. The theatre was purchased by the city of Phoenix in 1984 which initiated a much-needed restoration process. It reopened in 1997.
The Luhrs Building is a nice historic structure at 11 West Jefferson Street designed in the style of Beaux-Art which is a neoclassical architectural style taught at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. It’s got 11 storeys with a brown brick façade, marble ornaments at the two tops floors and a cornice at the very top. It opened in 1924 and is definitely worth checking out.
Opposite the Luhrs Building is the Luhrs Tower which is a very cool Art Deco building, built in 1929. It is located at 1st Avenue and 45 West Jefferson Street, is 56 metres tall (185 ft) and has setbacks at 8th and 11th floors which gives it the classic Art Deco look together with the ornaments at the top corners of the structure and the entry façade. It does bear some resemblance to the O.T. Bassett Tower in El Paso. Both buildings were designed by the architectural firm Trost & Trost.
The Phoenix Title and Trust building which was constructed in 1930 and opened in early 1931 has been converted in to a condominium and is now called Orpheum Lofts. This is another great example of Art Deco architecture in Downtown located at 114 West Adams Street. It has 11 floors and the bricks in the façade were made especially in California and are progressively lighter in colour from bottom to top.
At 139 North 6th Street there’s an interesting Victorian building called the Rosson House. To be more specific it is the Stick-Eastlake Queen Anne style of Victorian architecture. It looks like something out of Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco and really stands out in the cityscape as it is the only one of its kind in the Downtown area. It was built in 1895 and now serves as a historic house museum in Phoenix’s Heritage Square. The house was designed by San Francisco architect A.P. Petit…so this may just explain the resemblance to the Victorian buildings of San Francisco. The Rosson House would be Petit’s last work before he passed away.
The Fascinating San Carlos Hotel
The San Carlos Hotel is a notable historic building as well at 202 North Central Ave. Opened in 1928 it is designed in the style of Italian Renaissance. Marilyn Monroe stayed here and you can book the room in which she stayed. Other celebrities such as Mae West, Clark Cable and Gene Autry were a part of the clientele as well. It was placed on the spot where the first school in Phoenix was located. When the hotel opened it was state of the art with regard to air conditioning and lifts. Another interesting fact is that the San Carlos Hotel is featured in the opening sequence of Alfred Hitchcock’s film “Psycho” from 1960.
The hotel is claimed to be haunted. Leone Jensen who was visiting from California jumped off the hotel in 1928 and died. It is said that her ghost roams the hallways of the hotel and that witnesses claim to have seen her as a floating white figure accompanied by an unexplainable breeze. Based on her suicide note it is likely that she was physically abused by her boyfriend who was a bellboy at the Westward Ho, another Phoenix hotel. It is not certain if she was pregnant at the time and if her boyfriend was having an affair. Because of these theories there are some debate on whether it was a suicide or whether she was pushed off the hotel by the boyfriend or his other girlfriend.
A little girl around 6-9 years old is also rumoured to haunt the hotel. The theory is that she’s one of the children being affected by the closure of the school or the flu epidemic. It is said that she visits rooms at night and cries. Even if you are not superstitious these stories are quite entertaining, intriguing, do create some interest and myth related to the hotel. It will most likely also boost sales due to the publicity. You kind of wonder why so many hotels are rumoured to be haunted unlike residential properties. Could it be good for sales?
The Tunnels: History & Myths: John F. Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe and the Speakeasies
There is a system of tunnels running underground in Downtown Phoenix which date back nearly a century. It is said that when Marilyn Monroe stayed at the San Carlos Hotel, John F. Kennedy would stay at the Westward Ho, and they would meet up via interconnecting tunnels between the hotels. This is very unlikely though. JFK was only in Phoenix twice, one of those days was 17 November 1961 and on this day Monroe was in Hollywood for a photo shoot.
Back in the 1920s Phoenix was a small farm based community that was developing into a sophisticated city with around 5,000 inhabitants and business was booming with hotels popping up such as the San Carlos. In those days they didn’t have air conditioning so the tunnels were created with fans to pull air in to cool down the hotels. But they weren’t only used for this reason for long.
Phoenix were very good at keeping secrets. Gambling was outlawed in 1907 and in the 1920s prohibition was introduced so saloons and speakeasies would make their way through the tunnels. A speakeasy was an establishment that would sell alcohol illegally. Some of the prominent hotels would have access to these speakeasies through the tunnel system. There was even a bowling alley called the Gold Spot which you can still see through the glass tiles right across the street from the Westward Ho and this particular property is a unit block today but back in the day it was a big hotel for Hollywood celebrities.
The tunnels are still used today, like underneath the local jail when they have to transfer convicts and witnesses to avoid the press. It’s said there is access to the tunnels from the mayor’s office which is not confirmed. Some areas of the tunnels look really abandoned today where there is a lot of graffiti art that not many people have seen.
The Westward Ho
The Westward Ho was built in 1928 and is located at 618 North Central Avenue. It is 63 metres tall (208 ft) to the roof top and has 16 floors. There is an antenna spire on top of the building that is really a thorn in the eye and it is such a shame as it’s a really nice structure in the style of renaissance revival. It was also the tallest building in Arizona for more than 30 years until the Meridian Tower surpassed it in 1960.
It was one of the biggest luxury hotels in the US when it opened. As mentioned earlier, President John F. Kennedy stayed at the hotel. Other politicians such as Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Ted Kennedy and several Hollywood celebrities such as Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor have also paid the Westward Ho a visit over the years. The hotel closed in 1980 and was converted into subsidized housing for the elderly and mobility impaired.
Modern Downtown Structures
Around the Downtown Area there are a lot of buildings of the ASU (Arizona State University). There are five campuses in the Phoenix Metropolitan area.
The aforementioned Phoenix Convention Center is really big and has a lot of interesting events going on. It has been hosting trade shows, conventions, consumer shows and theatrical events ever since it opened in 1972. As Phoenix has grown and developed over the years it has attracted high-technology business and increased tourism.
The U.S. Bank Center is another neat skyscraper. It was built in 1976, is 124 metres tall (407 ft) and is the second tallest in the town and Arizona. It was designed in the international style and has 31 floors.
The 3300 North Central Avenue building also located at this address is also an interesting piece of architecture which is also known as the 3300 Tower. The building is 109 metres tall (356 ft), has 27 floors and was constructed in 1980. It’s an eight sided glass tower which is rotated 45 degrees from the street and has elements of both the international style of architecture and post modernism.
If you are in the city centre around 2nd Street or 3rd Street south of Jefferson Street you will be able to view some major airplanes going into Phoenix Sky Habor International Airport as the route is just in that area.
In the Downtown area roughly between North 1st Street and North 3rd Street and East Roosevelt Street and East McKinley Street there are some buildings with interesting murals. There’s a second-hand record store called Revolver Records at 918 North 2nd Street which has a mural of Billie Holiday and also the alehouse called Angels Trumpet at 810 North 2nd Street which has a really beautiful mural as well. A really cool part of town.
The Chase Tower
There are several noticeable skyscrapers in the Downtown area, one of them being the tallest building in the town and Arizona which is the Chase Tower. It is located at 201 North Central Avenue, is 147 metres tall (483 ft) and was completed in 1972. The footprint of the structure is similar to a three leaf clover and the stem is the core of the lifts on the southern façade which is made in concrete. This is the tallest part of the tower. The west leaf has 34 floors and the north leaf has 36 floors, both with a glass exterior. The skyscraper has the untraditional feature of only having an entrance from an underground concourse and not from street level.
The Viad Tower and Beyond
One of the most interesting buildings in town is located a bit outside the city centre to the north at 1850 Central Avenue. It’s called the Viad Tower which is a modern style skyscraper constructed in 1991. It is 114 metres (373 ft) tall and has a floor count of 24. In front of the tower you will find a beautiful little park with a fountain and several interesting sculptures of children playing, a photographer and a gentleman sleeping, all placed in different locations. If you walk around the structure you will get some cool views from all sorts of angles.
Approaching the building from the city centre you will see a façade with a curved design on each side of the top of the tower. From the other side, viewing it from the park you will see a straight line going down through the middle of the building, curved at the top on each side with the structure angled towards the middle line. This building is an awesome piece of architecture, so you should definitely check it out.
In the area of the Viad Tower there are plenty of other nice residential buildings as well, especially between West Palm Lane and West Holly Street and North 1st Ave and North Central Ave. Furthermore the glass tower a bit further up the street called Central Park Square building at 2020 North Central Ave is also worth checking as it’s got a really cool zig zag design. It was built in 1984, has 12 storeys and is 46 metres (151 ft) tall.
Explore the Breweries…Craft, Micro and Nano…
A really cool thing to do in Phoenix is checking out some of the craft, micro and nano breweries in town. You could do this by yourself or even join a tour. You could start at craft brewery Phoenix Ale Brewery, where you can get four tasters based on your preference. They produce some really good beer such as the Victorian IPA. They are also a part of the same cooperation as the Sonora Brewery. The brewmaster is the fifth generation of brewers and is really passionate about the brewing process and his business. Getting a tour of the premises led by him is absolutely brilliant due to his passion and knowledge. To do this it would be a good option to do it as a part of a tour.
The next stop could be at Sun Up Brewery which is a cool little brewpub where you can get six different tasters picked by the brewery. They have a good range of beers here as well. Their Trooper IPA is really good.
Another cool place to check out is the nano brewery O.H.S.O. which is such a cool little brewpub. It stands for Outrageous Homebrewers Social Outpost…classic! Some of their beers are only available on the menu for a limited time as they are brewed by homebrewers who submit their recipes. Absolutely brilliant concept. The bar itself is really hip with bikes fencing off the exterior space of the restaurant. If you are into merchandising you can also buy glassware and t-shirts. Besides beer supplied by the homebrewers they also have their own beer and beer from other craft breweries. You can tell from the menu which beers are from the homebrewers by their name being listed next to the name of the beer.
You can do a lot of things out of Phoenix as well. An option could be going to Sedona, the Montezuma Castle National Monument or Jerome. In Sedona an awesome option is to check out the Coconino National Forest and the Temple of the Holy Cross or just the city itself which is pretty touristy but still nice. There several of nature preserves, especially national forests, fairly close by and the Grand Canyon is not too far away either if you want to head in that direction.
By the Time I Get to Phoenix…A Poetic View…
“By the Time I Get to Phoenix” written by Jimmy Webb was originally recorded by Johnny Rivers in 1965 and popularised by Glen Campbell in 1967 on his album of the same name. Campbell’s version won 2 Grammys, it was the third most performed song from 1940 to 1990 as per BMI and was ranked number 20 on BMI’s Top 100 Songs of the Century. Frank Sinatra called it the greatest torch song ever written. He also recorded it himself for his album “Cycles” in 1968.
A torch song is a sentimental love song, which normally is about a one-sided love, a lost love, a case where one party is unaware of the existence of the other, a situation where one party has moved on or where a romantic affair has affected the relationship. The expression comes from the saying “to carry a torch for someone” or “to keep aflame the light of an unrequited love”. Even though this song is not about the city itself, it still makes you think about Phoenix when listening to it and is just an absolute classic.