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Preserving the history of downtown Phoenix

Posted at 9:39 AM, Aug 31, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-31 15:08:08-04

PHOENIX — When you walk through downtown Phoenix with historian Steve Schumacher, he knows all about how Phoenix has transformed into one of the largest cities in the United States.

“In the late (1920s), so while the rest of the country was getting ready for the depression and so forth, since Phoenix wasn't so closely tied to Wall Street, and it was primarily an agricultural town, the booming continued,” said Schumacher.

At that time, the population of Phoenix was incredibly small. There were only 29,000 people. But city leaders started marketing Phoenix to big cities in the Midwest and east coast.

“And they would try to get people to come out here,” said Schumacher. “And one of the ways they did that was to try to get rid of the Adobe and build very ornate buildings.”

The city started to look very different.

“The ladies built an opera house down here...for their own entertainment, but also to prepare to project to the rest of the country that, hey, Phoenix is not really a one-horse, cactus-ridden town. We have some sophistication as well.”

Some of those buildings are still with us today.

The San Carlos Hotel was built in the 1920s and at the time it was the place to stay. When celebrities of the day like Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable came to town, they stayed at that hotel.

hotel san carlos

Schumacher says this portion of Central Avenue around the San Carlos looks somewhat the same as it did nearly 100 years ago.

Across the street from the hotel is the Professional Building. At the time, some of the city's most successful professionals did business there. It's now dwarfed by the former Chase Tower, but it used to be the city's tallest building.

Professional Building

“It's one thing to step into a Wells Fargo building and look at all the glass and wonderful tile floors and stuff, but it's a whole other thing to be able to walk into the Professional Building in the lobby and understand that that was the first bank that made widespread loans to build places like Maryvale and Paradise Valley, a lot of the different homes, and that happened right there in that building.”

A few blocks away is the old Fry's building built in 1885. It's now Majerle's Sports Bar but it's one of the first commercial buildings in the city. It used to be a grocery store, saloon, and barbershop.


Steve has a passion for not only knowing about the history of these buildings but he's trying to keep them. It wasn't until the mid-1980s that the city established the historic preservation office and commission.

Right now, in downtown Phoenix, there are only 48 buildings dating back about 100 years.

“If you don't think 48 is very many... In the mid-90s, there were 103 buildings. And so now we're down to 48.”

Schumacher says part of preserving the city's history is knowledge. The more people know, the more they can appreciate how far we've come and hopefully preserve history. And a big part of that is teaching young people.

“I know I can teach young people about the history. Get them involved. Get them excited. Do it in a compelling way so that when they get to be 30, 35, 40, and they're put in a position to decide if the San Carlos is going to get knocked down or not, they go, no, no, no, wait a minute. There's a lot of history there. Let's see what we can do to preserve it.”