Phoenix's Willo District is a cottage industry
PHOENIX -- The ceiling beams were hewn by hand in 1922, and Jeff Cirulla points to the chisel marks as he stands in the living room of this Spanish colonial treasure. He appreciates the workmanship all the more, he says, now that the painstaking task of removing layers of purple latex paint has been completed.
Elsewhere in the neighborhood, residents proudly show off leaded-glass windows, murals on backyard walls and scored concrete floors. In a cozy California bungalow, Jeremy and Denise Staley indicate the newly installed hexagonal tile in the kitchen; a classic touch.
"We took out the granite countertops," Denise says.
These are the people of Phoenix's Willo Historic District, and this is their annual home tour. Held during the winter (the next one is Feb. 10), about 15 homeowners open up their storybook cottages, most built in the 1920s and '30s in such styles as English Cotswold, Spanish mission and French provincial.
The homes were designed long before the imperative for entertainment centers, walk-in closets and a separate bedroom for each and every child. But, for the sake of abundant charm, the residents make adjustments.
"A substantial majority have a storage facility somewhere, for the winter clothes," Bob Cannon, president of the neighborhood association, said with a chuckle. "The lack of storage and a garage is a challenge for some of the (newly arrived) suburbans to handle."
A historic district in Phoenix? Well, you have to stretch the concept a bit -- and New Englanders would split their sides with laughter -- but it is, after all, a young city. The Willo gained protection as a special conservation district in the 1980s, which spared it the distressing trend of so many of Southern California's quaint postwar neighborhoods; no mansionization is allowed here.
(Willo, by the way, is not a careless misspelling of the tree. It's a merger of two original voting precincts here, Wilshire and Los Olivos.)
The cultural sophistication of the neighborhood's residents has also spawned a number of similarly minded businesses. An embryonic antiques row has formed along the neighborhood's southern edge, on McDowell Road. Nearby, a tiny bakery is turning out marvelous breads and rolls, and is also affiliated with (and is supplying the baked goods for) a respectable adjacent cafe, housed in a former flower shop.
A funky women's-wear shop and a garden store are making a go of it in the northwest corner of the neighborhood. And a playful boutique hotel has opened nearby.
The Phoenix tourist is the beneficiary of all this. The neighborhood, directly west of Central Avenue in the midtown area, is also convenient to both the incomparable Heard Museum, home to an astonishing collection of historic Southwest Indian art and crafts, and the Phoenix Art Museum.
Visitors intrigued by the cottages may simply drive into the neighborhood, park, and stroll along the sidewalks. They'll likely find plenty of company. Unlike most of urban Arizona, where people huddle in walled housing developments and dash to air-conditioned vehicles, the Willo district has more the feel of "Father Knows Best."
The homes have benches, porch swings, Adirondack chairs and fire rings out front. Residents walk their dogs on sidewalks shaded by parkway trees. Kids ride their bikes in the streets. And Phoenix's notoriously manic surface-street traffic is cooled off by traffic circles, speed bumps and artificially created dead-end streets (steel gates installed on east-west streets prevent through traffic to Central).
Antique merchants who appreciate the sensibilities of the neighborhood are beginning to sprout along West McDowell Road at the neighborhood's southern extremity. The rents are cheap, because this business district is still a bit rough around the edges.
"It's not like Melrose Avenue or Santa Monica Boulevard yet," said Cannon, "but it's going to get there. We have a Jack-in-the-Box, which is an eyesore."
Indeed. Also, directly across from a funky little coffee place called Willow House (they didn't get the memo about the spelling), there is a huge pawn shop with a sign that advertises "jewelry, guns, music, tools, coins."
Sage is one of the better antique shops here. It specializes in European salvage -- iron gates that can be mounted on walls as decor, chandeliers and other weathered Old World finds. A clerk noted that owner Kendra Vermeer has a buyer based in Europe, and makes regular treks to the Port of Long Beach to meet the container ships.
Blue Crate Findings has some beautiful glassware, as well as distressed-wood furniture, and, from China, wooden gates, screens and painted boxes.
For furnishings of a much more recent vintage, there is D.A.'s Modern, carrying such midcentury indulgences as pole lamps, spindly dinette chairs and bright-colored dishware.
But it's evident that antique commerce is a chancy proposition along here. In February, Kismet was one of the more intriguing shops on McDowell, but when I swung by on a return visit in September, it was gone, replaced by Willo Antiques. Another big antique store up the street had gone out of business, its windows defenseless against graffiti vandals.
In another corner of the neighborhood, on North 15th Avenue, the Purple Lizard carries funky and flamboyant women's clothing, including what it describes as "wearable tie dye treasures." Also for sale are local art and body products -- perhaps a bottle of lemon thyme oatmeal and rice bath salts?
Sharing the same building is Southwest Gardener, with its metal garden sculptures, inlaid-tile tables and chairs, and large, ceramic-pot fountains that are positively musical when they're all running at once.
When it's time to restore your strength with a bite to eat, head no farther than the Willo Grocery, a neighborhood bakery and deli that is worth a visit if only to savor the rich scents emanating from the ovens. The fresh loaves of bread laid out on a display table might include -- as they did on my visit -- currant walnut, cranberry hazelnut, onion rye, raisin challah and apricot almond.
The grocery is affiliated with a restaurant next door, one that adheres to the neighborhood's spirit of preservation. The building was a flower shop back in the 1940s, and a classic neon sign on the roof reads "My Florist." Rather than tearing that down and making the place over, the owners kept it and simply called the place My Florist Cafe.
Inside, there are exposed steel beams and a concrete floor on which thousands of vases undoubtedly dripped over the years. The decor is otherwise stylish, with bands of purple lighting, green walls and potted palms. The picture windows, which once showcased the flower arrangements, now contribute to the sunny, airy interior.
My Florist Cafe is a very popular lunch spot. So popular that, well, they serve the same menu of salads and sandwiches at dinnertime. Fortunately, it's possible to make a substantial nighttime meal of the big salads and perhaps the daily soup. The effort is earnest, though the service and the kitchen seem to suffer occasional lapses.
On the plus side, all the baked goods are from the bakery next door, and the wine selection is respectable. If the heat of Phoenix provokes a thirst for beer, order up the Four Peaks Kilt Lifter, a Scottish-style ale from a microbrewery in nearby Tempe.
A neighborhood with an emerging sense of style can use a boutique hotel to match, and the Willo has one nearby in the Clarendon, which lies just off its northern edge.
The boxy building has been spiced up with white paint and bold, vertical blue stripes. The pool deck is also a shocking blue color. At night, a courtyard wall becomes an ever-changing light show of pink, blue and green floodlights.
The rooms have high-end beds, linens and toiletries, and also some clever design touches. There is a sun shade over each window, but on the wall next to it is a sheet of plywood painted with a watercolor image and mounted on rails. This can be slid across the window for greater privacy and total darkness -- yet with artsy flair rather than the sterility of a drapery.
The staff is very friendly, and the inclusive perks are free phone calls (local and long distance) and chauffeur service. Providing the latter might be something of a public service, given the Clarendon's popularity with young business travelers fond of the clubs.
Directly west of the Willo neighborhood is a real municipal treasure, 80-acre Encanto Park. Among its offerings are a golf course, a kids' amusement park with a 1948 carousel, and a lagoon where paddleboats can be rented for a gentle float among the ducks and geese. Fishing is even permitted, for trout, channel catfish, sunfish and grass carp.
It's a relaxing retreat in a city that seems to be in a perpetual rush. Don't be surprised if you encounter a few Willo residents here, too. After a few days in a cozy cottage, Encanto Park's wide-open spaces can be therapeutic for them, too.
IF YOU GO
WHERE: The Willo neighborhood is in Phoenix's midtown area, directly west of Central Avenue (which, be warned, has been a nightmare of construction for months). It is bordered on the south by McDowell Road, on the west by 15th Avenue, on the north by Thomas Road.
HOME TOUR: Next year's Historic Willo Home Tour will be held Feb. 10. Tickets cost $12.75 if purchased online in advance, $15 on the day of the event. Generally, about 15 homes are open on the tour. Information: www. willohistoricdistrict.com.
RETAIL: Blue Crate Findings, 137 W. McDowell Road, (602) 548-8280; D.A.'s Modern, 527-B W. McDowell Road, (602) 252-0001; Purple Lizard Boutique, 2827 N. 15th Ave., (602) 728-0980; Sage, 335 W. McDowell Road, (602) 258-3033; Southwest Gardener, 2809 N. 15th Ave., (602) 279-9510, www.swgardener.com; Willo Antiques, 133 W. McDowell Road, (602) 266-0939.
DINING: My Florist Cafe, 534 W. McDowell Road, (602) 254-0333, www.myfloristcafe.com; Willo Grocery, 530 W. McDowell Road, (602) 441-5450; Willow House, 149 W. McDowell Road, (602) 252-0272.
LODGING: Clarendon Hotel and Suites, 401 W. Clarendon Ave. Room rates from $99. www.theclarendon.net, (602) 252-7363.