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New Book Explores the Storied Pasts of Four Historic Districts in Downtown Phoenix

The 1912 “Frenchy Vieux” home in the Roosevelt Historic District is iconic not only for its architecture but also for its first resident, Marcellin Vieux, who made his fortune as a concrete contractor.

Two architecture photographers step out from behind the lens to release a coffee-table book honoring historic districts of downtown Phoenix.

By Lauren Tyda | Photography by Kevin Kaminski and Alex Rentzis

There is something palpable about walking through the historic neighborhoods of downtown Phoenix. From the charming bungalows and gothic Victorians to the Spanish colonials and quaint Craftsman hideaways, they engender a distinct feeling that we are not in the land of stucco and ceramic tile anymore. Lawns are meticulously manicured and bursting with flora. Front porches and Adirondack chairs invite communal exchange, whether it is brief a smile and a wave or a full-blown block party. It is this sense of place and diversity that makes the neighborhoods such destinations, both for gawkers on casual afternoon strolls or on the annual historic home tours.

Architecture photographers Kevin Kaminski and Alex Rentzis hope to capture the innate charm of Arizona’s most storied residences. The duo will highlight four districts in Phoenix—Willo, FQ Story, Roosevelt and Encanto/Palmcroft—in their forthcoming coffee-table book, “Historic Homes in the Heart of Phoenix.” The tome will compile archival and current photography, along with the colorful historical narratives that make these homes the coveted commodities they are today. We caught up with Kaminski and Rentzis for a peek inside the project.

How did you become interested in historic Phoenix homes?
Rentzis: I have lived in the Willo historic district for five years, having moved here because my wife, being from Rochester, N.Y., wanted a home that would remind her of back East. I could not believe the beautiful and historic architecture that exists in the heart of Phoenix. After photographing homes for the Roosevelt and Willo home tours, I decided to look into making a coffee-table book that would highlight these beauties hidden in our sprawling metropolis. It was amazing to me that this type of project at this scale had never been done before. With the loss of so much historic architecture from our relatively young city, I felt this book would educate, preserve and document our Phoenix historic district’s story.

Kaminski: What interested me in joining Alex on this project was my love of architecture. As a photographer, I’ve spent the last 12 years specializing in photographing luxury hotels and resorts. It was something that kept me so busy that I really didn’t have the time to explore other forms of architecture. When Alex told me about his idea, I got very excited because I knew this project would allow me to explore and expand my craft into something different.

A classic Tudor style, this home was almost completely destroyed after being struck by a mature pine tree that had fallen during monsoon season a few years ago. Miraculously, the owners were able to restore it with the original brick intact. The kitchen has since been renovated but still has the original historic charm.
“We call this The Monkey House,” says Kevin Kaminski, architecture photographer and coauthor of “Historic Homes in the Heart of Phoenix.” Apparently one of the original owners had pet monkeys that lived in the house. The new owner added fun jungle/monkey wallpaper in the lower level bathroom to keep that memory alive.

As architecture photographers, you have seen plenty of beautiful homes. What about Phoenix’s historic neighborhoods most intrigued you?
Rentzis: The passion that the owners have for their homes is palpable. It is amazing to see the repeated story from these residents about how they gave up the suburbs to move back into the downtown area in search of that unique, non-cookie-cutter dwelling. Many have supplied us with extensive documents about their homes that tell the amazing stories of past residents. Some stories include homes that were made into boarding houses to help with the influx of workers in Phoenix for the World War II effort. The occasional knock on the door from strangers saying that their relatives used to live in the abode during the 1920s is also a common story.

Kaminski: What I find intriguing is the pride that these homeowners have and the lengths they go to in order to preserve these buildings. They truly respect the history and architecture and want to see the homes last another 100 years. It’s for this reason that my wife and I settled in FQ Story a little over three years ago.

What are some of the key architectural features and styles of these historic homes?
Rentzis: I am amazed how much people love 100-year-old wooden floors, handcrafted banisters on stairs, stone fireplaces and, of course, basements. It is rare to find homes with basements in Phoenix, but surprisingly, they were quite common in the early 1900s. A recent house I photographed in Roosevelt featured a still-intact 1920s kitchen in the basement where the home’s servants once lived.

Kaminski: The beauty of these historic districts is that there are so many styles and features. We will be featuring Spanish Colonial, Tudor, Craftsman, bungalow and Neoclassical, to name a few.

The kitchen from a meticulously remodeled 1903 Victorian home in Roosevelt Historic District
“This 1922 Neo Classical Revival house is a great example of homes with ample family spaces that are attracting people back to the downtown Phoenix area,” says Alex Rentzis, architecture photographer and coauthor of the book.

What are some of the most surprising things you have discovered in the curation of this book?
Rentzis: Socialization and a sense of community is the common bond that exists in all of these neighborhoods. All the homes have a porch, and residents walk around and actually talk and socialize with their neighbors. I never saw this when I lived in the Phoenix suburbs.

Kaminski: For me, it’s meeting the homeowners. When they let me into their space and give me the tour, I see the excitement in their eyes. They have such pride in their houses and love telling the stories passed down from generations of owners.

How have these neighborhoods evolved over time?
Rentzis: Just about all the neighborhoods declined in the 1970s and 1980s. I have lived here since 1981 and would not have thought of walking the downtown streets at that time. Many homeowners have supplied us with historical photographs of their homes that looked like they were one step away from a bulldozer and wrecking ball. Most of the neighborhoods evolved in different phases—for example, Roosevelt through the arts and artisans. The demographic diversity is also a major catalyst to the success of the historic districts and, currently, the influx of families into the larger Encanto/Palmcroft district.

Kaminski: As I walk down the streets with my 7-month-old baby boy every day, I’m always seeing some kind of upkeep being done. One thing I learned about owning a historic home is that the upkeep and work never end. They aren’t turnkey anymore, but that’s part of the charm of owning an older house. You end up learning a lot along the way and sometimes you uncover something that has been hidden for decades.

Clawfoot tubs are a common element in many of the historic homes included in the book.

After learning more about these districts, has it changed your perspective on which one is your favorite?
Rentzis: I wish I could have a home in each neighborhood because they are all unique in their own ways. The big Craftsman porches of Roosevelt; the classic Mediterranean styles of Encanto Palmcroft; the quaint homes of FQ Story; and, of course, the varied home styles of Willo.

Kaminski: I can’t say I have a favorite per se, but the more I learn about each neighborhood, the more I just love living in this area. All the stories and quirks are what make each unique.

What do you believe is the key takeaway from this book?
Rentzis: I want locals to get a sense of pride for living in such unique and historic spaces and for Phoenix residents to get an appreciation and awareness of our historic architecture and how quickly these districts can succumb to outside pressures bringing unwanted change and exploitation.

Kaminski: An awareness and appreciation for how these historic districts have survived for over 100 years and how they continue to thrive. I also hope that the new generation of homeowners continues to preserve the history and architecture that make these homes so unique. With new trends and designs, we’re seeing a lot of people renovating these historic homes to the point that they no longer hold that historic value. I hope that this book will inspire people to preserve and maintain some of the original elements.

Kaminski: I hope this inspires the new generation of homeowners to continue to preserve the history and architecture that make these homes so unique.

The book (O’Neil Printing Inc., $50) is set to release this fall. To pre-order a signed copy, go to spartaphoto.‌com.

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