Skip to main content

History Happened Here

The Desert

May 2024
6min read


In 1985 the city government of Scottsdale, Arizona, quite remarkably set
aside one percent of its capital improvement budget to
acquire and display public art.
The fund this created has also
helped support the magnificent,
airy Museum of Contemporary
Art, itself a work of art, and its
neighbor the Scottsdale Center
for the Arts. Both are located
on the parklike Civic Center
Mall in the heart of the area
known as Old Scottsdale. These
attractions, surrounded by shops, restaurants, and more than 125 galleries, achieve thegoal so many cities are striving for these days: keeping downtown alive.

Art and Scottsdale have been tied together since the first painters drifted into
the area in the early 1900s, when Scottsdale was really no more than the outskirts
of Phoenix. In 1973, around the time it became a separate municipality, Scottsdale launched what became a popular continuing tradition called Art Walk. On Thursdays year-round, dozensof galleries on two thoroughfares stay open into the evening.

On the night of my visit the scene was
festive, as theatrically lit palm trees and
greenery poked spiky silhouettes into the
darkening sky, and the gentle splash of a
fountain mingled with notes from jazz
groups set up on several corners. The welcoming atmosphere makes the art approachable. Youcan examine the work
of a wide range of masters of Western
art like the Native American artist Fritz
Scholder or ponder such mysteries as the
shimmering blue glass vase at least eight
feet tall that I spotted in the shadows of aninterior courtyard.

In one of the galleries I noticed some
unusual art lovers clustered around the
cookies and punch: a dozen or so preter-
naturally subdued and highly groomed
teenagers, the girls in black
cocktail dresses, the boys in
suits. This, it turned out, was
a Scottsdale social institution
called a Cotillion Group, being exposed to art and manners at the same time.

I was part of a group too—
journalists who were learning
about Culture Quest, Scottsdale’s newest and perhaps most
creative art initiative. Benefiting once
again from public funding, this is a plan
to lure visitors with a variety of art and
cultural offerings in the area. Another
entrée to Scottsdale’s art scene is provided by a company called Painted Desert Tours.They work primarily with corporate groups of 10 or more to offer
visits to artists’ studios and the homes of
private collectors, plus cocktail receptions at museums and chats with prominent localarchitects and gallery owners. The idea behind this and Art Walk
is that such backstage social occasions
will help people overcome any hesitation about wandering into a gallery or museum andengaging a stranger in talk about art.

Of the several excursions I went on, the
jewel in the crown was a half-day visit
to Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s
winter headquarters. This is considered
one of Wright’s true masterpieces and
still functions as a school for architects.
My guide was the expert and outspoken
Jeffrey Cook, a professor of architecture
at Arizona State University. “This was a
cultural center when there was no Scottsdale,” Cook remarked, explaining thatuponWright’s first visit in 1927 he fell in love with the desert.

By 1937, when Wright bought land on
the lower slopes of the McDowell Mountains from the proceeds of earlier triumphs,
his work had pretty much fallen out of
favor. Cook explained: “He rejuvenated
himself by coming to this place in the
Sonoran desert, and his philosophy of organic architecture was inspired by the nature hefound here.”

Wright wrote of his fascination with
“the dry, clear sun-drenched air, by the
stark geometry of the mountains.” As we drove onto the
property that sprawls across
a mesa pocked with desert
vegetation, Cook mourned
the changes that man has
wrought upon the landscape. “It has been slowly
destroyed by the most awful houses by
developers with no vision.” Wright witnessed this same march of progress, and
when he spied newly installed ranks of electric power lines bordering his property,“he threw a fit,” said Cook, “reversing the orientation of his living room so he wouldn’t have to see that.”

Whatever Wright would make of today’s fashionable Scottsdale or the developmentthat crowds the once empty desert, a visit to his paradise still holds magic.
I never before came closer to a Wright
house than glossy spreads in books and
the reconstructed room that’s on display
at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Here
I wandered through a half-dozen rooms,
low-slung structures luxurious in their
simple fabrications of stone, canvas, and
glass. I sank into surprisingly comfortable,
brightly cushioned banquettes, marveled
at the elegance of the partly underground
dinner theater, with its ranks of stone benches and windows set high and tilted up toframe the brilliant Arizona sky.

Near the back of the theater, I’m embarrassed to admit, I imagined for a momentthat I spied Wright’s ghost, wearing
his brimmed hat and half-smile. Or was
it a look-alike? Perhaps, I thought, it was
a Taliesin re-enactor of whom I’d be urged
to ask architectural questions. Then I
turned my head, and “Wright,” surely a
visitor like myself, had vanished. Ghost
or no, the architect’s spirit is indelible,
inhabiting every corner of this place. “We have met the desert, loved it and lived with it,” he wrote. “The desert is ours.”

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.”


We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.