(Originally published Dec 2013 | Phoenix Magazine)
The secretly stable life of the Valley’s most outrageous architect
It was another beautiful Phoenix day in 1977 when the nervous young man parked in front of the sleek, low-slung home/office of the legendary Valley architect, Alfred Newman Beadle V. Bracing himself, the fresh-faced youngster grabbed his paper-thin portfolio, straightened the tie on his ill-fitting suit, and started up the long driveway.
Up ahead, a door flew open and Al Beadle himself appeared. Dressed in his signature black and white from head to toe, a slim cigar clamped between his lips, he was carrying a garbage bag.
Stunned, the young architect stuttered, “Mr. Beadle, Mr. Beadle. I’m Rich Fairbourn and I just graduated from architecture school,” and held out his portfolio in one shaky hand.
Beadle dropped the garbage in the curbside can. “That’s just too damned bad,” he said, turning his back on the stunned student and reentering his home.
When it comes to the late Al Beadle, the Valley’s most irascible and influential architect—besides from some guy named Wright—you’ll discover that cinema-worthy encounters like Rich Fairbourn’s are a dime a dozen. By the way, Fairbourn ended up not only working with Beadle, but became a lifelong friend.
Start with the fact that Beadle was a self-made success famed for his love of exotic luxury cars (Rolls Royces, Lamborghinis and Jaguars, oh my!). Yet his favorite was his beloved mid-70s pale yellow Ford Ranchero, which Beadle being Beadle, drove just like it was his Corvette, squealing around corners with blueprints and construction materials flying around the truck bed.
Like the time Beadle roared that Ranchero up the steep driveway of architect Wendell Burnette’s then under-construction home in the Sunnyslope foothills. “We had just finished topping off the concrete panels,” Burnette says. “Suddenly this guy—who looks a lot like Al Beadle—pulls up in a yellow Ranchero and starts shouting ‘Integrity!’ at the top of his lungs. That’s how I met Al.”
Unfortunately, Beadle being Beadle meant money also metaphorically flew out of his truck bed. “People hear I’m Al Beadle’s widow and assume I must have millions,” says Nancy, Al’s wife of more than 50 years. “But Al gave away a lot of things. He’d rather lose money on a project than charge someone more than he originally quoted,” she says, sitting in her small but impeccably modernist guesthouse tucked behind the home of her daughter Gerri, one of the five children she and Al raised while moving in and out of dozens of self-designed, and often self-built, homes, apartments, hotels and more.
People who knew him still chuckle at how Al answered his phone, with a deadpanned, “Beadle here.1” Or how he dismissed the Valley’s prevailing architectural aesthetic as “Mud huts and Taco Bells2” and relished pointing out “non-buildings and dust-catchers3” to the local press. Not to mention, his famous warning: “If visual pollution were toxic, we’d all be dead.4”
Then there’s the time Beadle attended the local architects’ association’s annual costume ball dressed as Sparky, the ASU Sun Devil. “It was a big social thing,” says Edward “Ned” Sawyer, another lifelong friend who cut his architectural teeth in Beadle’s office in the 1960s. “One year we went dressed as a six pack of Coors beer, but this year we borrowed the real uniforms from ASU. The guys dressed as cheerleaders, the girls dressed as football players. Al said, ‘I gotta be the devil.’”
The story’s even funnier when you realize the same architects’ association now hosting the devilish Beadle at its biggest annual social event had earlier tried to sue Al out of his livelihood for practicing architecture without a license. They won the battle, but Beadle won the war, studying at night until he earned his license in the late 1960s—years after becoming Arizona’s most famous ‘architect,’ and only after refusing an honorary license from a belatedly chastised architects’ association.
“Al was very black and white, not just in his architecture, but in his dealings with people,” Rich Fairbourn says. “He had more integrity than anyone I’ve ever met. If you crossed the line, you were off Al’s list. Permanently.”
And it wasn’t as if Beadle mellowed as age and acclaim caught up with him. After semi-retiring to Carefree in the mid-1980s, he summed up the town’s look by saying, “It absolutely astounds me the way people want to build Santa Fe style homes and drive a Mercedes to their offices. They ought to ride horses. They ought to be consistent.5”
Five years before his death, Beadle finally received from his peers—and yes, the establishment—the recognition all artists crave. Decades after his work had been displayed at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art, ASU’s College of Architecture organized a reverential retrospective of Beadle’s career, including a walk-in version of his signature “Beadle Box,” the infinitely re-arrangeable module upon which all his designs were based. To no one’s surprise, Beadle clashed with the curator, bashed the show for including works he’d disassociated himself from, and eventually backed out of his promise to donate his archives to the University.
Beadle often said, “No good deed goes unpunished.6”
The Beadle Invasion
But who was this maniacal modernist? And why is this self-described curmudgeon so adored by so many of the Valley’s top architects and designers? And frankly, unless you’re one of the latter, why should you care about the former?
For one, if you grew up in Phoenix, you ate or shopped or slept or banked or ice-skated or got an x-ray in a space that was dreamed-up and then carefully constructed under the watchful eye of Al Beadle. His glass- and steel-lined homes get all the press because they’re beautifully preserved and take a pretty picture. But from the late 1950s through the early 1980s—which as luck would have it was also the same years Phoenix experienced its explosive post-war building frenzy—Beadle designed dozens of prominent public buildings. In fact, it may be hard to make out behind all the added-on stucco, faux stonework, and whatever other trends du jour they’ve been covered in, but greater Phoenix is still home to a surprising number of midcentury modern gems hidden in plain sight (see sidebar).
And thanks to the popularity of shows like “Mad Men,” new generations are rediscovering the joys of Beadle and his fellow modernists’ distinctive designs. Think of all the sleek restaurants and lounges housed inside former bank branches (Federal Pizza, The Vig Uptown), hair salons (The Parlor Pizzeria) or even motorcycle garages (The Yard). Or the dingy, decades-old apartments around the Valley that are being sandblasted down to their concrete block walls and accented with vibrant oranges and greens. All of which can arguably be traced back largely to Al Beadle and his decision in 1951 to abandon the frozen lakes of Minnesota for sunny Phoenix.
Born in 1927 in St. Paul, Minnesota, Beadle was steeped in construction from the outset. His father and uncle designed and built commercial kitchens, and Al learned to draw by working in his father’s drafting shop as a young boy. But Beadle also pointed to his two years’ service in the Navy’s construction battalions (abbreviated as “C.B.s” but nicknamed “SeaBees”) in the South Pacific, where he mastered building on the fly with modern, steel-based construction techniques. Beadle returned to his hometown long enough to woo Nancy away from her former fiancée, start a family and, of course, build a couple of self-designed homes. But warmer climes were calling his name, literally, as Al begrudgingly accepted a job at his father’s new commercial kitchen business in Phoenix.
The local establishment didn’t know what to make of Beadle, including the by-the-book bankers who famously refused to approve loans for his flat-roofed homes because they wouldn’t withstand snow loads. But as long as Beadle stuck with designing, building and then selling a series of increasingly sleek personal residences, the Arizona chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA-AZ) didn’t hassle him about not having a license.
But by the mid-50s, after Beadle, rather than a number of other prestigious architects, was awarded the job of designing the multi-million dollar Safari Hotel in the then sleepy town of Scottsdale, the AIA-AZ came down on Beadle like a ton of concrete blocks. But the AIA-AZ couldn’t stop Al from partnering with Alan Dailey, a Harvard-trained architect who had heard about Beadle’s treatment by the AIA-AZ. Dailey came out of retirement to partner with the young designer and happily did little more than add his architect’s stamp to Beadle’s increasingly revolutionary designs.
Nor could the AIA-AZ stop people from marveling over the Safari’s swank, lushly landscaped 12-acre property at the formerly remote intersection of Scottsdale and Camelback roads. Here, generations of Valley residents were introduced to a new, sleeker way of looking at the world while swimming in expansive pools, sipping cocktails inside the Conga Room’s circular booths wrapped around a towering tableside fireplace, or enjoying dinner and a show in the sultry French Quarter showroom.
The Valley was never the same; which is all that mattered to Beadle. Aside from his relationship with Nancy (which he always insisted was his greatest accomplishment), nothing mattered more than the work.
As Al told a group of ASU architecture students, “Once you sell out, you will always sell out. Money is the cheapest form of wealth. What a dismal way to go through life.7”
Al Beadle died on October 10, 1998 and was buried in Cave Creek National Memorial Cemetery of Arizona with full military honors including a rifle salute during a ceremony attended by his family, friends and admiring colleagues.
Sidebar: Beadle’s Greatest Hits
Although the Safari Hotel is long gone (replaced by the Safari Drive condos), plenty of vintage Beadle buildings remain. Here are a few highlights from his 1960s heyday, when his version of modernism swept the Valley.
In a single year (1963), Beadle designed three of the Valley’s most revolutionary, even scandalous, apartment complexes. The recently restored Triad Apartments (4402 N. 28th St.), a tiny triplex, vaulted Beadle into the international spotlight when it was selected by Art & Architecture magazine as the first project outside of California to be profiled as part of its Case Study design project. Basically a larger version of the Triad, The Boardwalk (4225 N. 36th St.) caused quite a scandal at the time thanks to its fishbowl-like floor-to-ceiling fronted glass living spaces. Handsomely restored a decade ago, The Boardwalk still attracts young, artsy types who follow the original rules established in the swinging 1960s—if the vertical blinds are open, come in and have drink, but if the blinds are closed, don’t you dare come a-knocking. Last but not least, Three Fountains (4411 N. 40th St) was Beadle’s rendition of a slightly more upscale but still affordable apartment design. Located just across 40th street from La Grande Orange, Three Fountains remains one of Arcadia’s most desirable addresses.
Then there’s Executive Towers (207 W. Clarendon Ave.), the Valley’s tallest, most luxurious apartment building when it opened in 1964. Designed when Beadle was all of 33-years-old, anyone who says modern architecture is too severe really needs to take a gander at this 22-story midtown Phoenix gem. Surf the Beadle Archive at ModernPhoenix.net and soak in the building’s dramatic porte cochère entry, stylized tile facade and gleaming, light-filled lobby, not to mention the iconic concrete umbrella plunked down by the pool deck, forever looking as if it just tumbled out of a giant rum cocktail.
Beadle’s 1960s heyday included more than homes, apartments and much-missed restaurants such as the Miracle Mile Delis at both Park Central and Chris-Town malls. His 1967 addition to the now-demolished Tower Plaza Mall included a popular food court, one the Valley’s original Harkins Theatres, and the still-standing International Ice Palace hockey rink. Now named Arcadia Ice Arena (3853 E. Thomas Rd), note the self-supporting, ribbed concrete roof beams that negate the need for interior columns while allowing light to stream in via a ribbon of ceiling-level clerestory windows. Be sure to stroll around back to discover the secret Alpine-style lounge (now named the Ice House Tavern) overlooking the ice rink from behind the mirrored plexiglas wall. Yes, all those times you busted your butt on the ice, a bar full of tipsy adults were pointing at you, laughing.
1 Fairbourn, Rich. “Beadle-Juice”, CITY AZ. Winter 1999: Page 120. Print.
2 Sentinery, Robert. “Tributes to the Maverick Of Modernism”, CITY AZ. November 1999: Page 99. Print.
3 Panich, Paula. “Cruisin’ Central With Beadle”, V. August 1987: Page 14. Print.
4 Jones, Eddie. September 2013. Phone interview.
5 Garrison, Gene. “Alfred Newman Beadle, Architect: The Steel and Glass Man”, Carefree Enterprise Magazine. September 1988: Page 7. Print.
6 “Tributes to the Maverick Of Modernism”, CITY AZ. November 1999: Pages 98 - 99. Print.
7 Underwood, Max. “Tributes to the Maverick Of Modernism”, CITY AZ. November 1999: Page 98. Print.