The Desert Blooms

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My day of Wright continued with a driving tour past other buildings he had designed or consulted on and ended with a visit to Vernon Swaback, a noted Scottsdale architect who had worked at Taliesin. Over coffee and pastries he explained, and to a degree defended, his view of what is appropriate in terms of building on and landscaping the desert, issuesthat consume planners and environmentalists in Phoenix and Scottsdale.

Another lively encounter involved a stop at a complex called Cattletrack Studios, harking back to its ranch origins. The adobe and wooden buildings there date from the 1920s. In the fifties they became an art colony—a significant part of Scottsdale’s flourishing cultural communityand listed on the National Register of Historic Buildings. Nearby are other historic adobe structures housing architects, artists, and galleries. Among these are the Allan N. Bone Gallery, which features Spanish Colonial antiques, and the Figarelli Fine Art Gallery, home to elegant works with Native American and Western themes. Although close to downtown Scottsdale, the Cattletrack cluster feels like an outpost or a secret garden. One might never noticeit, hidden as it is behind adobe walls and a scrim of cacti and shrubs.

To get better acquainted with early Scottsdale, I spent some time wandering the handful of blocks that make up Old Town. The history of white settlement in Scottsdale doesn’t go back very far, so it’s not surprising that the earliest surviving public building is less than 100 years old. This is the sturdy red-brick schoolhouse of a simple Arts and Crafts design built in 1909 that now serves as the Scottsdale Historical Museum. It is a small place with an old-fashioned air, but it lays out in brisk fashion the story of the city’s founding in 1888 by Winfield Scott, a Civil War veteran and minister (no relation to the famous general). He was drawn to this spot in part by the existence of the Salt River Canal, whose waters had long been harnessed by earlier residents, the Hohokam Indians. Scott promoted the area’s riches—the health-giving benefits of its climate and its plentiful, cheap farmland ripe for the planting of oranges and grapefruit—and he saw his community thrive.

Without the dependable water supply, I read at the museum, Scott would have had “no compelling reason to purchase section 23 under the DesertLand Act.” Today the Phoenix area is dangerously parched due to years of drought, and the Salt River is far fromdependable.

The streets around the museum have a vaguely Western feel. Two- and three-story buildings exude a little Alamo here, a little frontier town there, but most have been been altered and spruced up for the visitor. You can read markers explaining that today’s Western-wear store once housed the general store and post office and that what is now the Mexican Imports Shop was a pool hall 80 years ago. The creamy white Spanish Colonial Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church does look really old, but it turns out to date from 1933, put up by the town’s Mexican residents. Today it is home to the Scottsdale Symphony. Next door is where Cavalliere’s Blacksmith Shop, originally built of tin around 1910, was replaced10 years later by the handsome adobe structure that stands here today. It’s still owned and operated by the familywhose name it bears, a legitimate throwback to Scottsdale’s oldest West.

Despite a newly energized preservation effort, in many ways the city embraces the New West. Its resorts and residences sprout eerily green lawns and tidy suburban flower beds. There are realms of golf courses and exotic spas. Taken all together, these might tend to put the community in the forefront of the blanding of America if not for Scottsdale’s authentic engagement with art of every description. And what continues to nourish this passion is Frank Lloyd Wright’s extraordinary architectural legacy, his desert camp that looked out, as he wrote, “over the rim of the world.”

Wright spoke of the desert as “a vast battleground of Titanic natural forces.” One place near Scottsdale to experience this dynamic in all its magnificent variety is the Desert Botanical Garden. The facility,one of the finest in the world, spreads across 145 acres, 50 of which are planted with both indigenous species and examples from around the globe. The garden offers a wide array of tours and special events. “Many visitors have never seen plants like this,” remarks the director, Ken Schutz. “I often hear peoplesaythey are having an other-worldly experience.”

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