REMEMBER WHEN: Apartments, Renters Make Scottsdale History

REMEMBER WHEN: Apartments, Renters Make Scottsdale History

By Joan Fudala

Just as apartments are making big news this year in Scottsdale, rentals and renters have been an important part of the city’s history.

Current issues include building height, potential disturbance of scenic views, proximity to Scottsdale airport, and the cost/benefit of apartment renters vs. homeowners to the city’s infrastructure. Also under scrutiny are compatible architecture, the change that apartment dwellers are making to Scottsdale’s overall demographics, lack of affordable housing options, and whether the trend to rent vs. own will continue for young, mobile professionals.

Yesterday’s debates involved several of the same themes, but also included the periodic demand for more housing (especially during and after World War II) and the demand for affordable housing within our once agriculture-based economy. Other concerns were housing for relocating people making the transition from seasonal to full-time residents.

Large apartment complexes are a phenomenon of the past 50 or 60 years in Scottsdale. Prior to the 1950s, renters leased a room, a guesthouse or an apartment connected to a retail space from a private owner in this once small farming village. A post-World War II migration of new residents, particularly after Motorola brought thousands of high-tech workers to Scottsdale in 1957, created new demand for a variety of housing options and spurred the growth of apartment complexes in the 1960s.

Consider these bits of Scottsdale history:

•    The Underhills became one of the first “landlords” in Scottsdale when they began renting rooms at their home—which they called Oasis Villa—on the northwest corner of Scottsdale and Indian School roads in the late 1890s.

•    Scottsdale’s first resident artist, Marjorie Thomas, rented a tent home from Walter and Helen Smith on Indian School Road when she, her mother and brother arrived from Boston in 1909. Thomas became a lifelong resident and is credited with helping create Scottsdale’s cachet as an art community.

•    Around 1910, Ed Graves and his wife opened Graves Guest Ranch on the site of the former Oasis Villa, and rented rooms and bungalows/tent homes to seasonal residents and visitors. Through the 1940s, many newcomers to Scottsdale made Graves their transitional home before building homes of their own.

•    When shops were built in downtown Scottsdale during the 1920s-1940s, they often included a second-floor apartment to rent. Earl’s Market on the northwest corner of Scottsdale Road and Main Street and the U.S. Post Office (later Porter’s Western Wear) on Brown Avenue were two storefronts that included second-floor walkups.

•    With a critical shortage of housing during World War II, the federal Public Housing Administration, under the Lantham Act, selected Scottsdale for the location of a public housing project for war workers as well as military personnel and their families assigned to Thunderbird II Airfield north of Scottsdale (now the Scottsdale Airport/Airpark). A federal court condemned acreage on the northwest corner of Second Street and Marshall Way, paying “Doc” Bishop $2,400 for the land previously used for crop farming. Opened in 1943, Thunderbird Homes was comprised of one-story, functional apartments built to house families in efficiencies. A recreation building was also constructed, where many community meetings took place. Virgie Lutes Brown was Thunderbird Homes’ first manager; after Scottsdale incorporated in 1951, the rental housing project came under the town’s oversight. The apartment buildings were auctioned off to the public and removed in 1960 to make way for a parking lot. The Stagebrush Theater was built on the site in 1968 and the Loloma Transit Center opened there in the 1990s. The Scottsdale Museum of the West is set to open in December 2014 where war workers and their families once rented.

•    Thunderbird II Airfield Manager John Swope and his actress wife, Dorothy McGuire, rented a house from George and Rachel Ellis in the Cattle Track area during World War II, hosting parties there for their Hollywood friends. Others from Thunderbird II also rented at Cattle Track, as did artists and entertainers.

•    After World War II, there was a critical building materials shortage, and former wartime structures were repurposed into rentals for businesses and housing. For example, Quonset huts were moved into downtown Scottsdale, painted pastel and rented as apartments referred to as The Mushrooms. [Editor’s note: If you have photos of The Mushrooms, please email]

•    Retired obstetrician Dr. Phil Schneider, after relocating to Scottsdale from the Chicago area in the late 1940s, built one of the town’s first multiunit apartment structures. The one-story Adobe Apartments on First Avenue, built in 1953, included carports and a central courtyard, and attracted many seasonal residents. It is now listed on Scottsdale’s Historic Register.

•    In the 1960s, young workers, seasonal residents and retirees coming to Scottsdale created new demand for rental properties. Garden apartments in small to medium-sized complexes were built in and near the downtown Scottsdale area. Even spring training teams created demand for rentals, and the Oriole Apartments opened near the Scottsdale Ballpark (to host the Baltimore Orioles spring training in 1956-1958). Distinctive names of apartments included White Feather, Jacaranda, Regal Arms, Scottsdale Manor, Dayo, Granada, Loloma Vista, El Dorado, Shalimar Sands, Savoy Plaza and Sun Valley. Many still stand as evidence of Midcentury Modern architecture.

•    According to “Scottsdale Postwar Multifamily Housing Survey,” a report prepared by Debbie Able and Liz Wilson for the city of Scottsdale in 2003, “More than 100 multifamily projects of varying sizes had been built [in Scottsdale], mainly between 1955 and 1965.” The report also says that “demand for luxury rentals was particularly strong in Scottsdale in the postwar era. As a result of the upscale character of many complexes, the city’s apartments commanded the highest rents in the Valley. For example, by the mid-1960s, the median monthly rent on a furnished unit was nearly 30 percent higher.”

•    During the time that Louise Lincoln Kerr lived and operated a performance studio near Scottsdale Road and McDonald Drive (circa 1948-1970s), she offered temporary residences to visiting friends, artists and performers. Known as “The Shacks,” the rentals were occupied by an eclectic group that included famed musicians Pablo Casals and Isaac Stern, and historians Will and Ariel Durant, according to the city of Scottsdale’s Historic Register listing.

•    In June 1978, actor Bob Crane (Hogan’s Heroes) was murdered in his apartment at the Winfield Apartments on Chaparral while starring in a production of Beginner’s Luck at the Windmill Dinner Theater (southeast corner of Scottsdale Road and Shea Boulevard).

•    The city of Scottsdale, through its Community Assistance Office, provides Housing Choice Voucher (Section 8) rental assistance to more than 720 low-income families in Scottsdale, in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, per the city’s website.

•    Volunteer residents are appointed by the Scottsdale City Council to serve on the city’s Neighborhood Advisory Commission, which advises the council on neighborhood policies and programs, including affordable housing options such as rentals.

•    Social workers and staff at the city of Scottsdale’s Vista Del Camino neighborhood center on Roosevelt Street provide counseling and assistance to help residents avoid eviction from rental properties due to economic crisis.

•    The city of Scottsdale has a sales tax on rental properties. During the city’s fiscal year 2012-2013, the city collected a total of $12.6 million in sales tax revenue in the rental category, which includes commercial and residential real property as well as the rental of personal property (e.g., formal wear, home health equipment, DVDs, recreation equipment, etc.)

•    Apartment history will be made this year and next, as apartment complexes open within the Scottsdale Airpark. These new apartment communities will repurpose buildings and sites and provide area workers with live/work/play options as Scottsdale residents.

To all apartment dwellers, renters and tenants: Welcome to Scottsdale! Get involved, volunteer, support local events and businesses, and enjoy living and working here.

Joan Fudala is a Scottsdale-based community historian and author. Contact: