For decades, the former Phoenix Motor Company building in downtown Phoenix presented a blank face to the world. Windows and doors boarded up and stuccoed-over, it showed zero trace of its history as one of Phoenix’s oldest auto dealerships. However, after its restoration and transformation into a music venue, the resurrected building has now earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.
Even though Phoenix already had a Ford dealership by 1930, Los Angeles-based Ford dealer Dud R. Day saw potential in the city, which had experienced rapid growth through the Twenties and by then boasted skyscrapers and a brand-new airport. Rather than build the new dealership on Central Avenue, Phoenix’s traditional automobile row, Day instead chose to build his new showroom and service center on the corner of Fourth Avenue and Van Buren Street, the latter of which remains one of Phoenix’s major thoroughfares today.
Day chose Phoenix-based architects Lescher and Mahoney, the same firm that designed Phoenix’s city hall the year before and the city’s Orpheum Theatre the year before that, to draw up the plans for the building in Spanish Colonial Revival style. Those plans included about 10,000 square feet of floor space unobstructed by pillars, made possible by 6-ton roof trusses. As Day wrote in a letter announcing the Ford agency’s October 1930 grand opening:
Well, boy, she’s finished and it’s some building — the best Ford agency I’ve ever seen. I’d never of thot that you could build it for any such price; and complete too! Parts Department, offices, showroom and shop, and all the necessary indoor plumbing.
Day didn’t stick around long, though. According to the city’s Historic Preservation Office, within a few years he returned to Los Angeles to become a concrete and asphalt paving contractor. Grady Watson’s Consolidated Motors bought Day out and in 1934 sold the building to the Packard Phoenix Motor Company. Five years later, W.C. Quebedeaux’s Phoenix Motor Company swapped buildings with the Packard Phoenix Motor Company and in turn had architect H.H. Green design a $40,000 “modernistic” addition to the building that allowed it to sell and service Chevrolets and Buicks as well as used cars.
In 1954, Quebedeaux dropped the Buick franchise and renamed the dealership Quebedeaux Chevrolet, but by 1959 he too moved on from the dealership, passing it on to Ray Korte, who dealt in Ramblers and Jeeps. Korte remained there until 1967, after which the U.S. General Services Administration operated a motor pool out of the location until the late Seventies.
The Phoenix Historic Preservation Office “had given up on the building,” as the office’s Kevin Weight told Downtown Devil. That is, they’d given up on it until 2015, when retired firefighter Pat Cantelme and developer James Kuykendall bought the property with the intention of leasing it to Charlie Levy, who intended to transform the building into an 1,800-seat concert venue.
Despite the fact that the building is one of only three surviving prewar dealership buildings in Phoenix, the members of Phoenix’s Historic Preservation Commission declined the owners’ first request for historic preservation status and grants, noting that significant alterations over the decades — stucco over the original brick walls, boarded up entrances and windows, and the removal of decorative details — disqualified it. However, they later reversed their decision after discovering that the original storefront, doors, windows, and roof trusses remained with the building and that Levy’s plans called for restoring those features (the stucco reportedly couldn’t be removed without harming the brick). Grants available from the city under its historic preservation program come with the stipulation that the building will be preserved for at least another 30 years.
The other surviving prewar automobile dealerships in Phoenix, A.E. England Motors (built in 1926) and C.P. Stephens DeSoto Six Motor Cars (built in 1928), both on North Central Avenue, operate as part of Arizona State University’s campus and as the DeSoto Central Market, respectively.
Now called simply The Van Buren, the music venue opened in August 2017. The National Park Service added it to the National Register of Historic Places on November 2.