East Alvarado Historic District of Phoenix
East Alvarado Historic District
Period of significance 1929 – 1942
Near the central core of Phoenix lies a quiet stretch of pavement less than one-quarter mile in length. Within that quarter-mile, a collection of 30 homes comprise the compact neighborhood called East Alvarado -- a neighborhood whose evolution traces the history of Phoenix and illustrates a pivotal phase in the development of both the Valley and the nation.
Located on East Alvarado road, between Third and 7th Streets, the East Alvarado Historic District has evolved from the accumulated forces of nature, politics and the dreams of strong-willed individuals – dreams that traced their roots to the earliest days of the city and beyond.
Befitting the mythic origins of its name, the city of Phoenix rose from the ashes of an ancient culture. A people called the Hohokams are thought to have occupied the Salt River Valley as early as the Third Century, BC. The thrived in this desert setting by constructing a sophisticated system of canals to deliver the waters of the Salt throughout the Valley, providing irrigation for the staples of their diet – corn, beans and squash. Although the Hohokam would vanish from the Valley in the 15th Century, the canal system remained, lying dormant for the next 400 years.
In 1865, the US Army established Camp McDowell, twenty miles northeast of the Valley. The resulting demand for supplies drew attention to the river below where Jack Swilling uncovered the ingenious canals of the Hohokam. Described as equal parts soldier, deserter, prospector and promoter, Swilling formed a business that began to revitalize the waterways and cultivate the land along the north bank of the Salt. His activities drew additional settlers, giving birth in 1870 to the town of Phoenix.
As the waters granted Phoenix life, they also checked its early growth and form. The seasonality of the river flows saved the city from the frenzied fluctuations of the western boomtown syndrome, nurturing instead a paced and steady rise. Droughts would curb rapid accelerations in growth, while alternating floods along the Salt gave a northward push to the development as residents abandoned low-lying areas, moving north along the square mile grids established at the city’s founding. Center street, now Central Avenue, became the major north-south thoroughfare, thriving with commercial and residential development. On the eve of the 20th Century, the future site of East Alvarado was still two miles north of the City Center. By the late 19th Century, the components were assembled to pave the way for dramatic growth in the Valley.
In 1885, the opening of the Arizona Canal brought irrigation to an additional 100,000 acres of desert land. In 1888, the railroad came to Phoenix. An in 1889, the city was selected as the Territorial Capital. All the while, demand for agricultural products was on the rise.
The population of Phoenix tripled between 1885 and 1890. But the alternating plagues of floods and droughts persisted. It became evident that to provide continued, stable growth the waters of the Salt must be tamed.
In 1895, Dwight B. Heard arrived in Phoenix. A young assistant credit manager with a Chicago hardware firm, Heard was forced to make the move because of weakened health. A seemingly unlikely candidate to pioneer the rugged deserts, Heard was in fact from solid stock. His ancestors were among the hardy lot to colonize 17th century New England. With equal vigor, Heard took to the 19th century West.
By 1897 Heard had established an investment company and was actively engaged in raising crops and cattle. His business activities quickly revealed the limitations of the fickly waters of the Salt River. He became an active force in promoting federal efforts to control water in the desert. Heard’s tireless efforts were rewarded with the 1902 National Reclamation Act. The Act provided needed funds for the construction of the Roosevelt Dam which, when completed in 1911, stabilized the Valley’s water supply and provided a platform for unparalleled agricultural expansion along with economic growth.
In 1903, anticipating the prosperity his political efforts would bring, Heard and his wife Maie ventured north along Central Avenue and constructed a 6000 square foot Spanish Colonial Revival mansion at the corner of Monte Vista and Central. The home, named “Casablanca” would become the anchor for the entire quarter section of land that Heard subdivided in 1909. Ranging from Central Avenue to 7th Street and McDowell Road to Oak Street, Heard called his new subdivision Los Olivos and divided the 160 acres into 32 parcels of 5 acres each. Originally intended for upscale, estate size home, the project was ahead of its time. The market demanded smaller homesites, and Los Olivos was resurveyed and replatted numerous times between 1909 and 1919 to meet this demand.
By the mid 1920’s, activity spurred by the reclamation projects created an explosive period of residential construction throughout the Valley. Construction moved at a rapid pace in Alvarado Place, a development located at the northwest corner of the Los Olivos subdivision. In 1929, East Alvarado Road was extended out of Alvarado Place from Third Street to within 100 feet of Seventh Street. Two tracts were recorded and the East Alvarado Neighborhood was born.
East Alvarado was enthusiastically promoted by the real estate firm of Greene and Griffin. In 1930, the firm construction partner, Home Builders, Inc., built the first home in East Alvarado as a speculative venture. Designed by C. Lewis Kelly, this “spec” house showcased the Spanish Colonial Revival Style, then one of the most popular styles of the day.
Popular styles, however, soon gave way to much larger forces as the decade of the 1930’s brought the Great Depression on a world-wide scale. Thought its vibrant economy resisted, Phoenix also had succumbed to the economic malaise by the mid 1930’s. Government action would once more step in to jump-start the fortunes of Phoenix.
With roots tracing back to housing shortages following World War I, federal housing programs were beginning to mature. Passage of the National Housing Act of 1934 created programs to foster an increase in individual home ownership throughout the country. Additional impetus was provided locally through the efforts of Arizona’s powerful congressional delegation. Led by Senator Carl Hayden, the legislators were responsible for a rise in employment, stemming from government projects.
The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) established under the National Housing Act, would in large part mold the look of housing throughout the country during the next few decades. The FHA’s requirements for standardized house forms, materials and construction methods moved styling away from the romanticized Period Revival Styles of the 1920’s to a simplified style now called Ranch Style.
With financing bolstered by FHA loan insurance, the new Ranch Styles became prolific. The 1930 “spec” house had remained the sole dwelling in East Alvarado until 1937. But fueled by the FHA and employment from additional government initiatives, the remaining 29 East Alvarado homes would be constructed in only 5 years.
Based on FHA theory, East Alvarado was promoted as a model home development. The efforts included establishing outreach programs to inform the public of improvements in construction standards, encouraging home ownership, and increasing awareness of FHA mortgage financing. With uniform lots, setbacks and scale of structures, East Alvarado exemplified the “streetscape concept” promoted by the FHA to create uniformity and continuity of design, with the intention of enhancing sales and protecting real estate values.
Through the continued involvement of Homebuilders, Inc, East Alvarado would flourish. The homes that were produced are generally known as Early Ranch or Minimal Transitional Style. There are several variations of the Early Ranch, including the Monterey influenced Early Ranch, characterized by its “L” shape pland and low pitched roof, and the French Provincial Ranch with it characteristic hipped roof and cornice molding at the eaves. Retaining a hint of the old, East Alvarado also contains several versions of simplified Period Revival Styles.
East Alvarado evidences the emergence of an architectural form that would come to epitomize the modern American West. From its origins in the late 1930’s, the Ranch Style house reflected the economics of the time. Simplicity and adaptability of size and layout allowed the style to flourish particularly in Phoenix where it would become the dominant design of the 1940’s and beyond.
East Alvarado stands as a testimony to a period of critical transition in the residential architecture of Phoenix –a model for the “suburban ranch” neighborhoods that would follow.
Information and history provided by the City of Phoenix Historic Preservation office.