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E.T. Phone Home!

E.T. Phone Home!

We asked azarchitecture contributor Walt Lockley to share the history of the Valley Builder E.T. Wright:

E.T. Wright

Between 1950 and 1980 the Valley added something like a quarter million houses. That’s a gigantic number, out of human scale, hard to make any sense of, requiring the quick improvisation of several entirely new planned towns (Carefree, Maryvale, Sun City) and the traumatic transformation of everything else. Anybody who lived through it can tell you.

If as an experiment you slept in a different “Mid-Century” house every night, that’s 685 years. If you made it your day job simply to drive by, allowing three minutes of visual attention through a windshield for each one, pretending this, assuming that, we’re looking at six years and three months of nonstop eyeballing.

Not all of those houses are individually exciting or significant. Let’s be truthful. Many are truly great. And 100% of them are the products (literally) of a fantastic system of advertising, planning, assembling and selling housing. Competition among the builders peaked around 1960 and they pulled out all the stops: circus-atmosphere home shows, naming and pricepointing the models like cars (the “Spacemaster”!), industrial factory-floor-in-reverse assembly of prefabricated parts especially in the west valley, and the civic boosters of Valley National Bank etc giving out this constant tub-thump in the background to draw fresh midwesterners into the game. So 100% of those 250,000 houses are Mid-Century Modern houses from that standpoint. Phoenix was and is the world capital of that. This fascinating house-building machine has connections and parallels to the work of Ernst May in Frankfurt in the late 1920s. The celebrated Levittown pales in comparison.

It’s easier to understand these numbers in bigger bites.

For the imaginary hall of fame of Phoenix developers who invented and operated this vast house-building machine, the well-known names include John F. Long with roughly 30,000 houses, Staggs with 10,000, John Hall with 15,000. Then there’s Del Webb with some large number yet to be calculated.

Let me propose another name. The name is E.T. Wright. No relationship to you-know-who.

Emron Thomas Wright was born in Cedar City, Utah in 1917, spent his younger career in the lumber business in Phoenix, and his later career in industrial construction. He died in 2001. In the middle years, from the late 1950s to 1980 or so, he produced over 3000 homes in the valley. His “American Builders” did consistently interesting and high-quality work. Some of his work is entire subdivisions, and some of it single houses; if an E.T. Wright house comes up for sale on the azarchitecture website, take a look.

Wright’s furthest adventure into feverish developer show-biz was his Sands West subdivision, first section platted out in late 1959, 116 units (excuse me, homes) southeast of Northern and 35th Avenue. Likely that the five attractive houses arrayed around 33rd Place stood as the display models if you want a closer look. Wright marketed these houses as Polynesian.

Out there on the web there’s an entrancing bizarre sales brochure saved and brought to light by Dewey Webb, a true artifact of vintage tiki culture, with a portrait of an island beauty, some crazy nonsense about Hawaiian leprechauns doing your housework, and the names of the three models: the Hawaiian, the Samoan, and the Devonshire (?). To add to the cognitive dissonance the entire neighborhood was restricted. You wonder if a real Samoan ever tried to qualify. The named architect was Ragnar Qvale — more exoticism to conjure with. Qvale was the Norwegian-American ski instructor / 20th Century Fox contract player / designer said to be responsible for the interior of the original 1952 Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas.

All the Polynesian content here is skin deep or less, extending only to some roof detailing, lamps and ornamental masks by the threshold, most of it long gone. I’m sure they’re perfectly well-built houses. A little voice in my head, though, suggests that Qvale spent most of his time on the brochure.

On the other hand, from the ridiculous to the sublime, I suggest rolling out east on Indian School almost to Pima, to the edge of the reservation, for a look at another Wright subdivision. The Sands East Townhouses. Wright put these up in 1972 or 73, a series of 40-foot facades joined in a continuous line. But here each facade was artfully dismantled into detached planes, floating vertically and horizontally or both, not only creating lovely complicated visual effects of surface and voids and frames and scale, but actually creating useable shaded balconies, protected gardens, tall convincingly grand entries, deep cave-like garages. Never seen anything quite like it, and they’ve aged extremely well. (How did I miss this? Does anybody know the architect?)

And if you don’t like any of those, E.T. Wright built about 2700 more. We know he was capable of extraordinary things. Assuming can find them, at the rate of three minutes’ attention to each one through a windshield, pretending this, assuming that, allow yourself three and a half weeks to give each one a good thorough glance.