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Save the Camelview

Save the Camelview

This week azarchitecture contributor Walt Lockley runs down the architectural history to make a convincing case in this opinion post for our beloved CamelView Cinema. While the Theatre remains open and vibrant, development plans may call for the demise of this structure. It's never to early to show your support...

For forty years the Camelview has wanted your attention. As Jessica Rabbit said, it can’t help it. It was drawn that way. Just take a look. Years ago those three metal umbrellas were more dignified about catching your eye, when they were the color of rusted Cor-Ten. Now they’re shameless.

Which is good. Right now the Camelview needs your attention. It’s going to get torn down if we don’t do something.

Is it architecturally significant? First, the building itself is maybe 25% of the reason to try to keep it. Frankly many of its defenders couldn’t care less about architecture. Camelview 5 is a popular, well-loved, thriving business with a strong recognized identity. It’s an art house. There’s a clear demographic. For decades it’s been one of the few venues for foreign, independent and limited-release films in the entire state. It functions well. Fans are often lined up outside, around the corner. Their desire to save this theater has zero relationship with nostalgia.

Is it architecturally significant? Well, first some history. The Camelview opened in 1973 as an outparcel of Camel View Plaza mall. The original Camel View Plaza included anchor department stores Sakowitz out of Houston, and Bullock’s out of Los Angeles, some 20 smaller stores, and that 10-story Arizona Bank tower on Camelback Road.

The developer of Camel View Plaza was John F. Cuneo, a rich aggressive Chicago investor with strong Catholic connections. In 1945 Time Magazine described him as “cold-eyed, round-faced.” For Camel View he brought in the architectural firm Belli & Belli, also from Chicago, also with strong Catholic connections. The mall, tower and theater are their only known work in the valley. Through the 80s and 90s, in several stages, Camel View Mall was connected to, aligned with, and then bought and eaten by Fashion Square, which frighteningly leapt across a city street to do it. That’s how Fashion Square got to be 2 million square feet.

Is the theater architecturally significant? Yes. There’s a case.

At 40 years old the Camelview appears to be the third-oldest movie house in the valley, which is unbelievable in itself. It stands as one of those stylish mid-Century landmarks everybody’s been talking up in the last five years, a prime remnant of the valley’s years of wild growth and architectural improvisation. In style, year, and spirit it cleanly fits on the same page alongside Sarmiento’s celebrated Western Savings banks, the science-fiction churches, and all the rest. It’s a mid-Century marvel. Save those, save this. It’s the same thing.

Not a local designer, you say? No local significance? I’d flip that and say, Belli and Belli came out from Chicago, maybe took a walk through 1972 Scottsdale, and presented us locals with a movie theater design focused on three unmissable shade structures. They’re cleverly bilingual for two kinds of traffic — legible through a windshield at 40 MPH, useful and legible for movie-goers strolling at 2 MPH underneath as they’re drawn inside, adding to the overall mantrap effect — and they’re memorable and distinctive and attention-getting like they oughta be, the three of them all arty and cute together, but have we skipped over the punch line? They produce shade. Maybe that was the message from Chicago. Maybe that’s not so dumb.

So there’s a case. Unfortunately the Camelview belongs to a building genre that flatly doesn’t exist within official architectural history, earning at best the backhanded label “commercial vernacular.” There’s not going to be much love or understanding coming from that direction. Their categories don’t even fit. I’ve seen it described as Art Deco.

What do we get if we tear it down? We’ll get a new expanded Harkins mall theater in a new expanded Fashion Square in there, and we get about 90 new parking spaces out here. That’s in the filed plan. Camelview gets scraped off and its footprint exchanged towards the parking and landscaping requirements, according to Scottsdale city code.

Speaking of Chicago and department stores, the executives at Westcor’s Fashion Square maybe don’t have to be reminded of the painful Marshall Field story. But maybe they do. As you know Marshall Field helped invent the American department store, then for more than 100 years his company sought a special presence in Chicago, a relationship, an affinity, an illogical but strong connection, with his customers. He built loyalty. It worked amazingly well. Chicago and Marshall Field conducted a long, dazzling, satisfying, lucrative love affair with each other. Particularly at Christmas. In 2005 its new owners, the May Company, in the role of the evil stepfather, announced that Marshall Field stores were going to be “rebranded” — obliterated. The people of Chicago rose up on their hind legs like a single monstrous manifestation crashing down State Street. Infuriated. Roger Ebert in the forefront. You should read the petitions online. Now eight years later one segment of Chicagoans are still so enraged they march against May in winter weather. And the May Company continues to smile and stonewall and pretend they didn’t make a horrific decision. The only question is whether they got a black eye or a bloody stump. They would not repeat that decision.

Camelview is the same situation on a smaller scale. The lesson applies here. Dan Harkins has built loyalty in the valley. Fashion Square wants loyalty. They want an emotional connection that keeps us coming back out of habit, out of affinity, familiarity, a dim love tangled up with self-image. That’s the way it works. No problem. But at Camelview, unless something changes, one day soon the owners may suddenly stop cultivating our affection and loyalty for this loyal dog, express paternal regret, tell us he’s gone now, gone off to live on a big farm past the edge of town, and smoothly produce a substitute puppy from around their back. This is the same, they’ll say. Don’t think about the old one. Love this one now. Loyalty goes both ways.