Sunnyslope is the Spotlight of Modern Phoenix Week

By David M. Brown

“Sunnyslope  . . . is representative of Phoenix/Arizona/American history.  When people cease to care about an area and its history, both will soon disappear.” —Vivia Strang

Sunnyslope, the north Phoenix community that began as an early 20th century health refuge and developed into a thriving community showcasing mid-century homes, is the focus of this spring’s annual Modern Phoenix Week starting April 9.

The central events, the Sunnyslope home tour and related expo and lectures in Scottsdale, are a partnership of the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (SMoCA) and Modern Phoenix, the award-winning Web site-based network of designers, educators, writers and design enthusiasts that celebrate Phoenix’s midcentury-modern architectural style.

The ticketed Sunnyslope home tour is April 17, with the free expo and lectures the previous day at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts (SCPA), adjacent to SMoCA on the Scottsdale Civic Center Mall.  Other related activities take place throughout the Phoenix area during the preceding week and the month of April.

The 7th annual Modern Phoenix event is also supported by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, notes Alison King, who, with husband Matthew, began in 2003 to chronicle the city’s endangered postwar buildings, promote discussion forums and coordinate architectural events.

In part, Sunnyslope was chosen for this year’s tour because 2011 represents 100 years since its founding by William R. Norton.

“While out on a buggy ride in the desert, one of his daughters was looking at the sun shining on the ‘pretty sunny slope,’” explained Vivia Strang, CPM, National Register coordinator for the State Historic Preservation Office in Phoenix.  “Mr. Norton liked it and named the area Sunny Slope.”  The community was written out as two words until after World War II, she adds.

Although Norton homesteaded some of the land around the turn of the 20th century, he platted the first subdivision in 1911, known as the Sunny Slope Subdivision.  The boundaries were Central Avenue on the west, Dunlap Avenue on the north, Third Street to the east and Alice Avenue on the south, Strang noted.

“The community hosts a diverse landscape of architecture, from tuberculosis cabins in the valleys to multi-story contemporary masterpieces in the mountains,” Strang said.  “In addition to the pre-war examples, one of the most defining characteristics is the extremely small postwar tract homes that were built around the health complex of the hospital.”

The area was primarily settled by people from throughout the country seeking a cure from tuberculosis and asthma.  “It was hoped that the dry, clean, desert air would cure their illnesses,” Strang said.  “After WWII, it became one of the Valley’s fastest growing areas, with subdivisions replacing tuberculosis camps and middle-class houses pushing out the shacks and tents.”

Midcentury-modern architects attracted to the area include Leslie Mahoney, Ralph Haver and Paul Christian Yeager.  Today, the area’s challenging elevations and hillside views have drawn architects and designers such as Marlene Imirzian, James Trahan, Jeffrey Frost, Wendell Burnette and Matthew Trzebiatowski to build their homes and design for others.

Many of these historic and contemporary properties, with sustainable features and modifications to today’s lifestyles, are part of this year’s tour of a dozen homes.  Included are the Vasan-Lobo home, with rammed-earth walls, solar orientation and rainwater harvesting in the original 1911 subdivision; and the Frost home, a Haver renovation featuring Energy Star products such as cool roof coating, xeriscaping and intensive recycling efforts.

Businesses are also participating, such as Michael Keele’s Central Slope eco+design+market, which will be the second home tour check-in and the location for an after-hours party.

“Each year, we try to feature both restorations and renovations of midcentury homes,” King said.  “Many of us are struggling with finding a balance between preservation and necessary upgrades to keep this generation of midcentury homes green and livable for our contemporary lifestyle.”

In the 1950s, people didn’t need a home office or media room — a necessity for today’s design professionals.  “It’s important to see how other people have accomplished a balance and take ideas and inspiration,” King said.  “In the tours, we try to show a good range of ideas at multiple price points by both professionals and weekend warriors, so there’s always a little something for everyone.”

Sunnyslope was also chosen because it represents one of many “unprotected” Valley neighborhoods.

“Our midcentury culture is extremely vulnerable as there are currently no organized efforts to designate these neighborhoods in the same way that districts like Encanto or Coronado have,” King said.  “There are no implemented restoration guidelines or tax incentives to restore. And, it is going to be a long, long time before the city of Phoenix is going to be able to assist in the research studies necessary to apply for historic designations.”

As a result, Modern Phoenix hopes the Sunnyslope tour, and future events, will provide a dialogue between homeowners instead of relying on city incentives.  “We try to illuminate the inherent benefits of restoration and adaptation from a practical and aesthetic standpoint,” King added.





SMoCA is hosting the free lectures and expo April 16 at Scottsdale Center for Performing Arts.

  • “Research your Midcentury Modern Home Using Primary Sources,” 11 a.m.– 12 p.m., by John Jacquemart
  • *“Nominate your Home, Neighborhood or Building for the Register of Historic Properties,” 12–1 p.m. , Vivia Strang
  • *“Roadside Neon of Central Arizona,” 12:30–1:30 p.m., Marshall Shore
  • “The Trouble with Teardowns in Arcadia,” 1:30 –2:30 p.m., Roger Brevoort
  • “Modern Scottsdale,” 2:30 ­–3:30 p.m., Doug Sydnor, with a 3:40 p.m. book signing
  • “Recent Past Preservation Movement:  A State of the Nation Address,” 4-5:30, by Christine French of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Among the other programs during the week is “Modern Phoenicians II: Extended Remix,” April 15, 6–10 p.m., an exhibition by students, alumni, faculty and professionals at the Art Institute of Phoenix gallery on Roosevelt Street. The school is also hosting a First Friday exhibition of artwork on urban themes, April 4.

Earlier that week, SMoCA, with AIA Arizona, is hosting the annual “Slide Slam” event, April 12, at 7 p.m., as a part of Modern Phoenix Week and in celebration of National Architecture Week. The program features John Kane, FAIA, LEED AP, Architekton; Brent Kendle, AIA, Kendle Design Collaborative; Michelle Ray, AIA and John Tran, AIA, Omni Plan; and Phil Weddle, AIA, Weddle Gilmore.

Please visit the Modern Phoenix Week Web site for more details:


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