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Catching Up With Alison King on All Things Modern Phoenix Week

Could you tell us more about what Modern Phoenix Week is?


Modern Phoenix Week is usually a 10-day celebration of mid-century modern design in Arizona. While the primary focus is typically architecture, we include all forms of design, whether that be furniture, jewelry, neon signs, or even fine arts and painting. We use our theme to organize educational events, workshops, and film screenings. The “week” culminates with the annual Modern Phoenix Home Tour. It’s an architectural tour that features progress on mid-century modern homes. Often what makes our tour a little bit different than your typical home tour is that we embrace change, and we understand that change is necessary to move forward in modern life. We don't have a snobby approach to preservation, but we always encourage and educate people about what their choices are, and more sensitive ways to adapt their properties. I have a pretty widely tolerant attitude towards what people are doing to their homes; I think more so than maybe others might have. I'm always including homes that kind of push the edge because it keeps the dialogue going, and it helps people decide what side of the fence they're on. Are they true preservationists, or are they progressive? And I think there's room for all of us in this conversation. Part of what I try to do is just highlight all the different voices, and let people decide for themselves what's appropriate. We start those conversations. Usually, the homes that I feature are quite intact, and those are always the homes that go over amazingly with the public. We love those time capsules that take us back in time, and often are the showstoppers where people have really been sensitive and then creative about problem solving and mindful of the larger setting of the neighborhood and the integrity of the exterior. In a nutshell, that's what we do.


When was the first Modern Phoenix Week?


2004. My website was founded in 2003, and it was shortly after that, about 6 months into publishing on the Web, we decided: “Oh, let's have a tour and let's just throw one together.” So we did. We threw together 5 homes in Windemere, which is a Ralph Haver neighborhood by Arcadia High, and about 100 of us came. We brought a Costco veggie platter, and everybody else brought something. We saw that there was easily demand for more like this. More social and less real estate oriented, kind of separating the appreciation from the sale of the home was important to some people. So that's kind of how it all started. Then, year after year we just added on more activities. The second year we added on lectures and we did a little mini expo. It was just some tables set up in a hallway, and then a couple lectures and the tour. Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art helped us scale up and made a proper expo and had a full week of activities, which was something we've continued to do up until Covid-19 hit. During the shutdown, we had to put tours of private homes on hold. We tried a virtual Modern Phoenix Week and it fared well, but didn’t have the face to face vibe that fuels the movement. This year, just to keep things simple as we revamped, we only held the tour. Next year we’ll go back to a similar format that we had before, which is 10 days of celebration, and bringing in special guests from outside. We often fly in somebody from out of state as a special treat.


So you had the tour this year, and the last one before that was 2019?


The last tour we had as a group was 2019. After we took 3 years off due to Covid, we called our rebooted tour “The Resurrection Tour”. It was based on the homes we had originally curated for the 2020 tour. About 3 quarters of the homes that were chosen for 2020 were able to continue and join us. I did have to select 3 or 4 more to fill it out.


Tour day was glorious. It was good to have many people back together, and it was good to have those conversations, and to show off the progress people have made in the last few years as they hunkered down and tinkered on their homes. We had some real original pieces that were very much in the original style, and then we had those that were very radical and kind of pushing forward ideas of what we can do with properties, whether they're on the historic register or not. I call them historic properties, because they often qualify, but just might not be on the register yet.


Where do you see this event in the future?


I think we've established a formula that works well for us in terms of the variety of offerings that we have, and the diversity of voices. I think what I’m going to see now as I plan for next year is more independently hosted events, which is something that we've gravitated towards, because I can't host them all. Especially if Modern Phoenix Week happens during a school week when I’m teaching. One of the models we've been moving towards is more self-run events that are affiliated with Modern Phoenix Week. That method helps get the community to also take ownership of this movement. It's not just me, it's a lot of us. It's other professors at other universities. It's other realtors who are doing their part. It's other armchair historians or professional historians doing their part. And so are partners, like Cosanti and Taliesin West, and other cultural institutions are always willing to partner and chip in. That's kind of where I’m seeing. In order to grow and to be more inclusive, and to help people take more ownership of this responsibility, it will be more decentralized.


What goes into planning this event, what does that process look like?


Well, I have a huge map that I keep of Arizona homes that are on my radar that is different than the public map that's on my website. The public map on my website does not pinpoint many residential homes. It only pinpoints the big sites like Taliesin and Cosanti, David Wright House, places that are public knowledge. But I maintain a database for my own use, that is homes that I've had my eye on whether I see them in a real estate listing or come across them in a vintage newspaper. I read a lot of vintage newspapers and magazines to find out what these homes looked like and where they were, because often in the fifties they would publish the address quite freely in the press. Journalists typically don't do that anymore when we’re writing about architecture today, but back then they did. Then I usually pick a theme for what the year is going to be in. Usually that theme is geographic.


For example, for 2024, I’m thinking Moon Valley and North Phoenix. I’ll pick a geographic area, and then go scout out and see what's there. I always go see it with my own eyes, because I drive up and down every street that I can, and mark things down on my map, and then kind of cross-reference that with data that I've already gathered from vintage resources and then do outreach to the public. Sometimes it's through the realtors, I'll say, “Hey, I know you sold this home 5 years ago. Do you know the owners, and can you make an introduction?” Sometimes it's me going up on a Saturday, and just knocking on the door and being like, “Hi! Have you heard of us? You've been nominated,” and I just have an interface with the homeowner right there. Sometimes I do a mailing beforehand, so that they know I’m coming, and then they can set up a time where it's not a surprise. It's a lot of fun. That's my favorite part of the whole thing is getting out, seeing the state and condition that things are in right now, curating what I think my audience is going to appreciate, and then finding those innovators who are kind of pushing the edge of what preservation can be. It just starts with one-on-one conversations with homeowners.


I give them the lowdown on what the tour is about, but I would say about 40 to 50 percent of the homeowners that are involved have been on one of our tours before. However, a significant number of them have never been on one of our tours, and just have heard about it. I let them know what it's about, and why we're doing it, and what the benefits are to them in their community. Then we round it all up, put together the tour, promote it, and it sells out in a day. That's the hallmark of what we do. The community is so tight and so enthusiastic that when we open up that box office, it has consistently sold out in one day for over a decade. It’s a good problem to have.


Once I have the homes settled, I start thinking about who our keynote speaker will be, and who we're going to fly in, or what national or global issues are relevant to us here in Phoenix. Then I try to find speakers who are Phoenix centric, who are Arizona specific content, and find the artisans and craftsmen to do the workshops. I’m always trying to find a film as well.


It's about keeping my radar open and asking my network on what's bubbling up and just keeping my finger on the pulse of what's going on in the community. I try to build something that represents the kind of conversations that we want to have. It’s a fun business. I had to teach myself every single aspect of it, just by watching and learning, looking at other events, and growing every year.


How do you see this work making a difference in the appreciation of modern design?


First of all, we're very concerned with authenticity, naming things by the right names, giving credit to the right architects, and telling the right stories. Telling the whole story is important as well. I think it broadens people’s palettes of what modernism is, because people have a stereotypical idea in their mind of what mid-century modern is, and that's largely due to what mainstream media reports on. What I like to do is show the breadth of diversity that we have here in Arizona. We have three and a half decades of mid-century modernism to go through, and the 1940s are totally different than the early 1970s.


We have lots of diversity in terms of different types of modernism to show. I think that by broadening people's palettes, it helps them become more accepting of different styles and different modalities of living. It helps them see the broader themes that are developed across Phoenix. For example, one of the big themes is the shift towards Spanish modernism that happened in the 1960s. Whether we like it or not, it happened. We can't turn our heads away. That was what the market was demanding – or that's what the architects and developers predicted or told the market that they wanted. Then it was very successful, and it became an interesting blend of regional modernism. That's part of what I'm trying to do, help people understand the broader themes across history.


Of course, I also want the property values to go up. We have the Haver Homeowner cohort and the Al Beadle Homeowner cohort, which are quite large. As a group, through the preservation of their properties, they have been able to raise the cachet of owning their homes. Certainly the sales prices of those homes make them very desirable neighborhoods to live in, and single-family homes to live in. That said, a lot of that appreciation comes through modification and updating like brand new kitchen or a brand-new bathroom. While my preference is the original aspects stay, I realized that I am not the only person on this planet with an opinion. People can do what they feel is best for them. I'm not a fan of developers flipping properties and speculating on what people think they might like in a newly redone mid-century home. But that is happening. The best I can do is just point people towards examples of where it's done more sensitively than others.


A critical part that I think that I've played is people often call me in for a consultation on their homes about what is important to keep and what is what is not important to keep. They're asking me to curate what are the most historically significant parts that they shouldn't touch. In that regard I’m on the front line, telling people don't demolish this Formica, or keep the pink bathroom. I've said to folks, “Keep the pink bathroom,” and what do you know? Here we are, 10 years later, and the pink bathroom is still intact. It’s very front line, one on one helping people understand that pink bathrooms aren’t made anymore. There will be no more if they’re all replaced. If you have an exemplary pink bathroom in a custom home, keep it. If yours is in a tract home and there are 1,500 other pink bathrooms just like it, it may not be as important. (Visit https://savethepinkbathrooms.com to learn more about the history of pink bathrooms, and their significance.)


How did you select your volunteers or organizations that you want to work with to bring the event to fruition?


Often I look at an organization's track record. What have they done before? Have they shown an interest in these topics before we came along? For example, I partner with the Heard Museum now and again. Anytime they have something mid-century going on they are good to call me, and they say, “let's both elevate visibility on this topic.” I do look at their past record of exhibitions, and if they are practicing what they say they want to believe in. Sometimes there are new organizations that come along that have no track record, so it's a matter of getting to know and trust them. Maybe partnering more strongly one year and then letting them be more independent the next year. We've been doing this for almost 20 years now. I have partners that I can just pick up the phone and ask, “What would you like to do for Modern Phoenix Week this year?” They'll put something together, and they're just ready and raring to go.


Volunteers sign up through my website whenever they sign up to get on my mailing list. So when I put out the call I've got a thousand people to pick from and every slot is filled. It's very rare that I feel I don't have enough volunteers, and when I need more, I just put out the call to the general public. My students are an excellent source of volunteers, and I love having the young people involved because they have never had access to these properties before. Typically many of my students are not even from Arizona. They're deciding whether or not they want to live here forever, or if they want to go back home. I’m more than happy to introduce them to Arizona architecture that way. It's just passing the baton to who is going to take our place when we're long gone. It's going to be the young people. We have to get them started early.


Is there anything else that you want to add?


I think the real emphasis here is that we are a community. People say, “Alison is Modern Phoenix,” and that's kind of true, I’m the public face of the brand, but it's really about the people. I've had people that I partnered with, like John Jacquemart, Donna Reiner, Roger Brevoort, Rachel Simmons, and the Jarsons – so many have been supporters from early on. Copenhagen, For the People, Design Within Reach, Scottsdale Community College, Artlink, the Arizona State University Library, Cosanti and Taliesin have all been excellent partners. The real estate and architecture community have been consistent top-tier sponsors. I think that with our shared values in this niche, we’ve been able to make a great impact, and I’m so grateful to everybody's contribution. If I had to do it alone, it would never get done. It's their talents and their continued interest in preserving mid-century architecture that is the spirit of Modern Phoenix. Really, it's the spirit of community. We don't think of Phoenix as having boundaries; we embrace all of modernism and all of Arizona.


That led the charge of using the term “desert modernism” to help classify what we're doing across Arizona. The genre creeps into Southern California, then into Albuquerque, and up into Utah. It’s helping us feel a part of something bigger than just ourselves. It's important too that we're part of the national trends and not just local trends.


Similar groups like Modern Albuquerque started up a few years back, then it slowed down. The fellows who are taking it over came to our tour this year and introduced themselves. They said, “We’re the new Modern Albuquerque!” It felt great. Denver and Las Vegas watching what we do, too — they’ve sponsored our events. We share some housing stock and history with Denver! We have synergy with Palm Springs and San Diego as well. We’re all trying to help stitch this country together with our themes and our common interests.


NOTES:


Alison King is the founder of Modern Phoenix and an Associate Professor of Design and History at Grand Canyon University. In 2013 The National Trust for Historic Preservation and American Express honored her with their annual Aspire Award, and in 2023 she was named a Master of the Southwest by Phoenix Home and Garden Magazine for her activism in historic preservation. Learn more about Modern Phoenix at: https://modernphoenix.net/


2023 Modern Phoenix Week Partners:

· Arizona State University Library: https://lib.asu.edu/collections/distinctive-collections

· Design Within Reach: https://www.dwr.com/

· Heard Museum: https://heard.org/

· Scottsdale Community College: https://www.scottsdalecc.edu/

· Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art: https://smoca.org/

Photos are provided by Leland Gebhardt and Alison King.

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