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Living in History

Arizona’s historic districts are welcoming a new generation of homeowners. Will today’s New Urbanists continue preserving the old?

Jimmy Magahern | Jan 5, 2012, 9:34 a.m.

That bonus has made historic homes even more attractive in this era of scaled-back house hunting. Couple the financial incentive with a renewed interest in compact and walkable, diverse mixed-use communities dubbed the “New Urbanism,” and it’s easy to see why young families are taking a long, fresh look at classic tree-lined neighborhoods like the McCue’s.

As the original preservationists prepare to pass the acorn-shaped street lamps on to the next torchbearers, a second generation of historic house enthusiasts are settling into what for some are their grandparents’ old neighborhoods.

“There are still people living in our neighborhood that were original buyers,” says Bruce Bilbrey, who’s lived for the past 20 years in Phoenix’s Medlock Place Historic District, a desirable square mile bordered today by the light rail hub at Central Avenue and Camelback. “But we’re also seeing a lot of younger families moving into the neighborhood and starting to fix up these older homes. Many of the original residents, as they’ve aged, are either moving away, selling their houses or, unfortunately, passing away. And we’re seeing a lot of younger people moving in — and a lot of renovation work.”

Past Restrictions

Whether this new generation will have the desire, or the political tools, to keep these districts authentically restored is a matter of concern for the original preservationists. Encanto resident G.G. George, founder of the first historic neighborhood association in Phoenix and a woman widely regarded as the movement’s grande dame, believes the passage of Proposition 207 in 2006, requiring 100 percent of the homeowners in a neighborhood to sign a waiver before any new residential historic district can be created, makes it virtually impossible to get a neighborhood approaching the mandatory 50-year-old mark to be designated historic today. In fact, there have been no more historic districts designated in Phoenix since 2007.

“When we decided to get Encanto on the national register, we had 100 percent of the residents on board,” she says. “No dissension. I don’t think you could get that today.”

Mabry says he’s seen a similar drop in the number of neighborhoods applying for historic designations in Tucson, even though the city still requires approval from just 51 percent of residents, rather than 100 percent.

“We haven’t had any new local designations since 1980,” Mabry says, even though many other neighborhoods have passed the required 50th birthday during that time. “These days, people don’t voluntarily sign up for increased regulations.”

Paperwork aside, some new owners of historic homes don’t feel compelled to retain quaint features like hand-cranking windows and gabled attic vents — particularly given the availability today for cheaper or more energy-efficient materials.

“There are certain people who want to remake these houses in their own image,” says George, disapprovingly. “Increasingly, people want to do their own thing.”

Ironically, it was that same individualistic spirit that created the eclectic mix of architectural styles that are the hallmark of all great historic districts. Drive down the streets of Tucson’s Blenman-Elm, Armory Park, El Presidio or West University historic districts, or Phoenix’s Willo, Encanto, F.Q. Story or Fairview Place, and you’re likely to encounter a wild mix of styles. Everything from Sonoran-style mud adobe block row houses and Art Deco homes with zig-zagging roof parapets and porthole windows, to Victorian-inspired houses with turrets and elaborate wrap-around porches and Tudors with steeply pitched roofs and Gothic-arched windows can be found on the same streets, often side-by-side.

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