WPA Administration Building | Courtesy of Will Novak, Phoenix Historic Neighborhood Coalition
As you might have heard last week, plans to demolish a 1930s-era building at the Arizona State Fairgrounds are on hold after preservation activists intervened on its behalf. The fate of the building, known variously as the State Fair Civic Building and the WPA Administration Building, is now in limbo pending a hearing today (Tuesday, July 22) at the fairgrounds.
What makes this building worthy of preservation? We reached out to Vincent Murray, a historian with Arizona Historical Research, for more information about its past and why some believe it should be preserved. If you’d like to attend today’s meeting, it’s at 4 p.m. in the second-floor Board Room in the Arizona Coliseum, 1826 W. McDowell Road in Phoenix. (Stop by the Arizona Highways gift shop while you’re in the area!)
Q: Tell us a little about the history of the building.
A: The WPA Administration Building was built in 1938 by the Works Progress Administration as its state headquarters. The WPA was a New Deal agency that provided employment and other services for millions of Americans, including tens of thousands of Arizonans (our population was less than half a million at the time). When the program ended in 1943, the building was used as the headquarters for AiResearch, one of Arizona’s early technology industries, and as exhibit space. This latter use is why it is sometimes referred as the Florticulture, Horticulture and Civic Building.
Q: What state is the building in currently?
A: The building hasn’t been well maintained. While state agencies are required by law to maintain and preserve historic buildings, the Arizona Exposition and State Fair Commission has been negligent in their duties. So, the building is in need of a new roof, as well as some minor structural repairs. Instead of performing the repairs, as required by law, the commission has decided to demolish the building. This decision was made without consultation of the State Historic Preservation Officer, which is also required by law. Had they followed the letter and intent of Arizona’s historic-preservation laws, they would have discovered that the cost for restoration was a fraction of their current $800,000 quote. They also would have a better idea of how the preservation of the building may qualify for tax incentives, its adaptive use and its potential for a return on an investment.
Q: What, in particular, makes this building worthy of being preserved, rather than demolished?
A: While we see a lot of the results of the WPA programs in Arizona, such as the park structures and sidewalks with the recognizable oval WPA stamp, and books, oral histories, artwork, etc., these are the results of the people who worked for the agency. But there is nothing that represents the human element, the decision-making process. This is where the direction for those efforts was located, the headquarters for the programs. Also, in keeping with the local support effort, this building was designed to be used as exhibit space after the end of the programs and the lease with the state.
Q: How can people get more information about, or contribute to, the preservation effort?
A: The Arizona Preservation Foundation has a website, www.azpreservation.org. You can find information and updates about the building under “endangered properties.” Not all old buildings need to be saved, but if we take the time to look into the history of places and think outside of the box on how places can be used for other purposes, we often see that demolition isn’t the best route, that alternatives really do make sense.