(Originally published: Nov 2011 | Phoenix Magazine)
Martinis, Muscle Cars & Murder
Stretching from the base of South Mountain until it fades into the foothills of the North Mountain Preserve, Central Avenue has always been Phoenix’s signature streetscape. And in the swinging 1960s, no section of this mighty thoroughfare sizzled like midtown. Back then, teenagers cruised Central Avenue and parked their souped-up cars at the world’s first McDonald’s franchise, which opened on the southwest corner of Central Avenue and Indian School Road in 1953, and sipped milkshakes beneath the restaurant empire’s first iconic, golden neon arches.
Their parents, meanwhile, were dining and drinking inside the dozens of smoke-fogged watering holes and sumptuous supper clubs studding both sides of midtown’s Central Corridor. Dressed to the nines and driving cars the size of aircraft carriers, the Valley’s movers and shakers descended upon hotspots such as Durant’s, the iconic steakhouse that’s resided on the northeast corner of Central and Virginia avenues since 1950.
“Everyone was at Durant’s,” says Josephine Alcazar, a midtown native and co-owner of the Russo and Steele car auction. “You’d have the mayor sitting right next to the biggest crook in town.”
Crooks such as John Henry Adamson, who held court at another longtime midtown hangout, the Ivanhoe Cocktail Lounge, until he was convicted of planting the car bomb that killed The Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles in the parking lot of the Hotel Clarendon (now the Clarendon Hotel) in 1976. And then there was midtown’s most infamous hotspot, the Phoenix Playboy Club, which jet-setted into midtown in the early 1960s for a two-decade run.
“Midtown really was a little like Mad Men back then, only on McDowell Road versus Madison Avenue,” says Beau Lane, who runs the midtown-based EB Lane advertising agency, referring to the popular AMC TV show based in 1960s New York City’s advertising world, with its hard-drinking, chain-smoking, immaculately-dressed title characters.
Now, following decades of decline as developers and wealthy residents fled to the city’s desert outskirts, midtown Phoenix has again become one of the Valley’s most attractive addresses.
Everything’s Waiting for You, Midtown
Bounded approximately by Seventh Avenue and Seventh Street, and running from the I-10 north to Camelback Road, midtown is nothing if not eclectic. Single-family homes dating to the turn of the century stand in the shadows of soaring glass- and steel-lined skyscrapers. Wide streets slice through compact, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods that were platted back when businesspeople commuted to Downtown via electric streetcars.
Ironically, the modern Light Rail system has helped restore some of the area’s bygone urban cachet. “Midtown has more Light Rail stops than anywhere else, almost one every mile,” says Don Keuth, president of the Phoenix Community Alliance, noting that midtown is one of the few places in the Valley that offers a true urban live/work/play lifestyle.
The resurgence is not being led solely by hipsters looking for an alternative to cookie-cutter suburban sprawl. Many of the area’s most ardent proponents are Baby Boomers and empty nesters drawn by midtown’s proximity to world-class museums and performing arts venues. Adding to the charm, the area is brimming with mom-and-pop boutiques, funky furniture stores, old-school steakhouses, honest-to-goodness soda fountains, so-hip-it-hurts coffee shops and trendy restaurants. Midtown’s hearty appetite for food-forward restaurants has enticed Valley culinary royalty Chris Bianco, Michael DeMaria and the owners of Postino Wine Café to all set up shop over the past few years.
Combined with the recent revitalization of uptown – midtown’s newer, flatter and more traditionally suburban sibling just to the north – this once-neglected area is now home to the Valley’s most vibrant dining and shopping scenes.
And it all started with a simple little strip mall.
Starting to Swing
Back in the ’60s, the Valley’s own Man Men knocked back martini lunches at Durant’s, and everybody who was anybody clamored for a key granting them access to Phoenix’s Playboy Club. It was a time when the name Goldwater was as closely associated with high-end clothing as it was with politics, and every year the world’s most famous golfers flocked to midtown’s Phoenix Country Club to compete in a quaint little tourney called the Phoenix Open.
Enter Del Webb, the legendary local developer who palled around with the likes of Bob Hope, Howard Hughes and Barry Goldwater; co-owned the New York Yankees; and constructed the first ever Las Vegas casino for gangster Bugsy Siegel. Best known for inventing the retirement community concept with his Sun City development, Webb was also instrumental in transforming midtown into the Valley’s swankiest destination, writes ASU researcher John Southard in his historical survey of the area, Midtown Memories. In 1955, Webb opened Uptown Plaza on 10 acres at the then-remote northeast corner of Central Avenue and Camelback Road, shattering the monopoly of high-end retail shops in Downtown Phoenix.
In typical Phoenix fashion, Uptown Plaza’s time in the sun was short lived. A year later, Park Central Shopping Center opened on the grounds of the former Central Avenue Dairy. (Unspooling across more than 40 acres northwest of Central Avenue and Thomas Road, the other half of this former pastureland became the new home of St. Joseph’s Hospital when it relocated from Downtown in 1953.) Featuring a modernist design and meticulously landscaped grounds, as well as acre after acre of free parking, this outdoor shopping promenade attracted flagship stores from such top retailers as Goldwater’s, Diamond’s and J.C. Penney.
As described in the new coffee table book Midcentury Marvels: Commercial Architecture of Phoenix 1945-1975, by the City of Phoenix Preservation Office and Ryden Architects, Inc., Park Central “was a new experience for customers used to shopping Downtown. Upon leaving their cars, the shoppers entered a shaded open-air mall that provided a quiet pedestrian environment very different from the streetscape qualities of Downtown.”
“Park Central mall was really the place to go,” says Ed Lane, who came to the Valley in 1958 and founded the renowned Phoenix advertising agency EB Lane in 1962. “The whole Central Corridor was a really happening place.”
The new midtown mall triggered a retail exodus from Downtown that continued into the ’70s and ’80s, locals say.
“If Park Central mall wasn’t the final nail in the coffin of Downtown retail, it certainly started construction on the casket,” says Vic Figarelli, another longtime local ad man who oversaw TV Guide magazine’s regional office out of the same mid-rise tower across from Park Central mall that housed the Phoenix Playboy Club. [Editor’s note: Figarelli was also an employee of PHOENIX magazine’s parent company, Cities West Publishing.]
But midtown wasn’t just the sum of its shoppers, or the hungry folks who packed its restaurants. The enclave was also teeming with office workers toiling in the soaring towers that rose up on lots once occupied by turn-of-the-century Central Avenue mansions. Midtown was going vertical.
Once again, it was Webb’s doing. Beginning with the construction of the 10-story Luhrs Building in 1924, the Valley’s high-rises had always been clustered in Downtown. In 1957, Webb snapped Downtown’s high-rise monopoly by constructing the city’s first tower residence. Located on the same stretch of prime North Central Avenue real estate where Arizona cotton baron Dwight Heard once lived, it was officially called the Phoenix Towers but quickly earned the nickname “Tower of Power.” The 14-story, pink condominium boasted then-groundbreaking amenities such as a 24/7 doorman, a private pool with cabanas and even an open-air rooftop terrace for the exclusive use of residents and their guests.
“The whole area was really hot,” says shopping center developer and former U.S. Senate candidate Jim Pederson. “The most infamous [nightclub] was probably the Ivanhoe, which was where John Henry Adamson, who was immortalized with his involvement in the Don Bolles killing, would hang out.” (Though developer Max Dunlap was eventually convicted of hiring Adamson to kill Bolles, rumors still circulate implicating the mafia and famed Arizona land and beer baron Kemper Marley.)
Unsavory clientele notwithstanding, the Ivanhoe, which for years occupied the bottom floor of the Mayer Central Building at the southeast corner of Earl Drive and Central Avenue (now a bank), wasn’t even the most infamous bar at that address. That honor resided with the Phoenix Playboy Club. Occupying the eighth floor of the Mayer Building, it was only the sixth Playboy Club in the world when it opened in 1962. Combining a hopping bar area with a formal live music showroom, the Playboy Club was accessible exclusively to members who used a special key to enter via an exterior elevator that climbed the west side of the building.
According to longtime local TV and radio personality Pat McMahon, the opening of the risqué nightclub caused quite a splash. “Phoenix was not a rube town by any means, but it was certainly not Los Angeles or Las Vegas. You just didn’t expect a place like that to open here,” says McMahon, who received a special media membership. He remembers the Playboy Club as a top-flight showroom, one of the few places in town that brought in national lounge acts, such as comedian Professor Irwin Corey and impressionist Frank Gorshin, who played the Riddler on the Batman TV show. “It was as close to the sophisticated uptown penthouse lifestyle as you could get in a town at the time,” McMahon says.
Still, the core attraction was undoubtedly the infamous Playboy Bunnies – the club’s attractive, all-female wait staff dressed in low-cut, push-up outfits with fluffy cottontails. “It seemed like it would be [a fun job] at the time,” says Josephine Alcazar, Valley socialite and co-owner of the Russo and Steele car auction, explaining her reasons for working as a Playboy Bunny in the 1970s. “And it was. Especially with all the big-name acts that came through on the club circuit, including Don Adams (of TV show Get Smart fame) and even Jay Leno when he was first starting out.” More impressive, she says, were the famous faces in the crowd, including country singer Hank Williams Jr., Warren Beatty and his entourage, and more professional athletes than you could shake a bunny tail at.
“You know, that kind of concept is probably not so unique today, not so risqué,” Pederson allows. “But at the time, wow! It had kind of a snobby private club feel, great atmosphere, and then there were the pretty girls. Not really sure if much business got done there – it was more for fun.”
Not so, says Arizona Highways publisher Win Holden, who recalls that “Vic Figarelli would frequently hold court in the Playboy Club after business hours, and I will confess to sharing an adult beverage or two with Mr. Figarelli and assorted advertising business luminaries. The fact that there were a plethora of very attractive and scantily clad Bunnies in the place keeping one’s glass freshly filled and bowls of snacks at hand was merely a coincidence.”
Alcazar says it wasn’t just the Playboy Club that made midtown the center of the Valley’s universe: “It was an exciting time; the Phoenix Country Club was the place to go and you could walk to art museums and Park Central Mall.” However, she says, midtown really came alive after dark, when the good-old-boy network would descend upon Durant’s to smoke cigars, drink martinis and cut deals. “It was like this little small town in a place that no longer was one,” she says.
Not that the martinis and cigarettes were reserved for after dark, says Ed Lane: “Watching Mad Men brings back a lot of memories, although they did exaggerate a few things. Everybody smoked, but I don’t think most people drank that hard, and certainly not at 10 a.m.” However, he admits it was not unusual to have a martini at lunch, and if you needed to find someone in the ad business, “Just go to Durant’s at noon and chances are you’d find them.”
“It was the way business was done back then,” says Beau Lane, who took over the EB Lane agency from his father, Ed, in 1994. “Everybody wore a coat and tie and suit to work every day, even in the middle of summer.” Beau, who started helping out at the McDowell Road office as soon as he could scamper across McDowell from the Lane family home in Encanto, also remembers emptying ashtrays and spotting the occasional bottle of scotch in desk drawers while cleaning up at night.
When client deals weren’t being hammered out over drinks at Beef Eater’s on Camelback (which closed in 2006 after a 45-year run) or Navarre’s at Uptown Plaza (now a Sweet Tomatoes), entertaining was done at home. “My folks lived in a restored 1920s home with a great pool and courtyard,” Beau says, “and they were always bringing clients over for dinner and drinks.”
“It’s true,” Josephine Alcazar says. “You had these wonderful old homes filled with young families and singles. And everyone loved to entertain. Especially when the Phoenix Open was held there at the Phoenix Country Club. The people who lived in that neighborhood threw the best parties.”
Like any great party, midtown eventually fizzled out. Ironically, many of the factors behind the area’s rise ultimately led to its decline. Just as developers and residents had abandoned Downtown for midtown, the lure of the open desert and the lack of natural growth barriers drew new development farther away from the central city. The straw that broke midtown’s back was a zoning change that allowed high-rise development to spread beyond the city’s Central Avenue core.
“There was a tremendous shift in the 1980s,” Jim Pederson says, “starting with a major change in zoning when Fife Symington, who was a developer and not the governor at the time, succeeded in getting the Esplanade built at 24th Street and Camelback.” The then-controversial 11-story development hatched a flurry of high-density development in the Biltmore area and beyond, further fragmenting the Valley’s far-flung centers of influence.
Midtown was also staggered by the effects of the I-10 extension and the creation of the Deck Park Tunnel, which led to the bulldozing of acre after acre of historic ’hoods before it was completed in 1990. In a town so dominated by cars, it was easy for midtown residents to pack up and drive to newer, more remote suburban neighborhoods.
In Midtown Memories, Phoenix City Councilman Tom Simplot describes moving to midtown in 1988: “Very few people lived down here... especially on weekends, when it seemed like everybody left and we had this big, huge shell of a city all to ourselves.”
Back to the Future
Today, midtown and uptown Phoenix are heating up once again, as new generations tire of endless commutes and cookie-cutter cul-de-sacs in the new neighborhoods that have dominated the Valley’s suburbs and exurbs – the sort of places where “all you see is the torso and head of your neighbor as they drive by, and you don’t even know if they have legs,” says longtime local Realtor Walt Danley.
And it’s not just a local trend, says architect Will Bruder, who recently moved into a bank-turned-condominium tower in midtown. “Cities all across America are inverting, from Portland to San Francisco to Boston, and now people are realizing, ‘Why not us?’” Especially, he says, as the inevitable speeding up of modern life makes our time ever more valuable. “What’s the real cost of that one- to two-hour daily commute?” he asks.
Unlike Downtown Phoenix – which, despite decades of revitalization efforts and a world-class collection of warehouses waiting to be converted into lofts, remains mostly a ghost town after dark – midtown has always maintained a significant residential population. According to architect Eddie Jones, who offices in an Al Beadle-designed midtown building, it’s the unique combination of skyscrapers and historic single-family homes that’s really fueling midtown’s revival.
“The built-in contrast between the older and the newer makes both parts more appealing,” Jones says. “Plus, zoning wasn’t as fascist as it is now. So you’ll find schools, museums, single-family homes and repair shops all next to a 15-story building. The only thing missing is a corner grocery store.”
The main obstacles blocking midtown’s full revival are the area’s vacant lots, including large stretches of open space lining several of the city’s most highly trafficked streets. Often tucked behind fences or concrete pylons, these barren parcels aren’t solely victims of the real estate crash. Many have been vacant for decades. It’s hard to call a ’hood a hotspot when three-quarters of the landowners at an intersection as critical as Central Avenue and Indian School Road would rather own a dirt lot than put up a storefront.
So why does this supposedly trendy neighborhood sport so many “empty teeth in the row,” as Will Bruder calls these dead spots? The hold-up goes back to the fact that so much of midtown is zoned for massive skyscrapers, Bruder says. “If you own a lot next to a high-rise, no matter how low the odds are, you’re always going to be holding out hope for that multi-million dollar payday.”
All of which has transformed Phoenix into “the largest uncompleted city in the nation,” says Bryan Cassidy of CCBG Architects. Furthermore, he says, “most national chains are not serving central Phoenix and have abandoned the area altogether.”
Which might not be such a bad thing, says Kimber Lanning, who owns the independent record shop Stinkweeds and founded Local First Arizona, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting locally owned business: “When I first relocated from Tempe to Central and Camelback several years back, people thought I was crazy. But now I feel like we are in the middle of the most vibrant collection of mom-and-pop shops and independent restaurants in the Valley.”
Considering that Stinkweeds’ neighbors are the super-trendy clothing boutique Frances and the Valley’s best retro sweets shop, Smeeks, maybe Lanning’s idea has stock. And just around the corner, forward-thinking restaurateurs such as Kris and Craig DeMarco (Postino Central, Windsor and Churn) and Aaron Chamberlin (St. Francis) are bringing new life to this once-moribund section of Central Phoenix.
True, there’s no Playboy Club. And no smoke-filled lounges – because, after all, who smokes in lounges anymore? But midtown’s swinging heyday seems closer than it has in years. And it offers plenty of free parking. Just the way we like it.
Take a tour of midtown/uptown’s drinking and dining hotspots.
This classic, clubby chophouse was founded in 1950 by the former Las Vegas casino man Jack Durant and serves up a mean martini. 2611 N. Central Ave., 602-264-5967, durantsaz.com
This stylish neighborhood café in the Clarendon Hotel features a bold, ever-changing menu crafted by chef and Mexico City native Doug Robson. 401 W. Clarendon Ave., 602-274-4774,
Founded by chef Michael DeMaria, this farm-fresh breakfast and lunch hotspot has brought new sizzle to Park Central’s long-moribund dining scene. 2909 N. Central Ave., 602-266-0565,
Overseen by Chris Bianco’s BFF, chef Claudio Urciuoli, this former takeout counter is adding a sit-down dining room this fall. 4404 N. Central Ave., 602-234-2100, pizzeriabianco.com
Housed inside a former architect’s 1950s office, this sleek, food-forward eatery is christened after the original name of its uptown neighborhood lining Camelback Road east of Central Avenue. 111 E. Camelback Rd., 602-200-8111, stfrancisaz.com
This charming restaurant and wine bar owned by ex-State Sen. Ken Cheuvront tempts with scrumptious sandwiches and cheese plates. 1326 N. Central Ave., 602-307-0022, cheuvronts.com
Clarendon Hotel’s Skydeck
Soak in stunning 360-degree views of the Phoenix skyline from the rooftop lounge overlooking this revamped boutique hotel. 401 W. Clarendon Ave., 602-252-7363, theclarendon.net
Midtown’s original hipster hangout coffee shop recently expanded into a larger, eclectically-decorated space next door. 4400 N. Central Ave., 602-696-9976, luxcentral.com
MacAlpine’s Soda Fountain
Established in 1928, this former drug store is home to a delightful soda counter serving up old-timey drinks such as shakes, malts and even egg creams and phosphates. 2303 N. Seventh St., 602-262-5545, macalpines1928.com
This spinoff of the Arcadia original is tucked inside a handsome indoor-outdoor space carved out of a 1950s deli. 5144 N. Central Ave., 602-274-5144, postinowinecafe.com
This trendy gastropub from the owners of Postino features cozy, leather-upholstered booths designed as an homage Durant’s. 5223 N. Central Ave., 602-279-1111, windsoraz.com