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Robert T. Evans: Masterful Adobe Design

Robert T. Evans: Masterful Adobe Design

Robert T.  Evans is probably best known as the architect of the Jokake Inn and its gathering of related properties on the southern and southeastern slope of Camelback. All of that has vanished. The sole remnant is that handsome evocative adobe double-tower standing along the entry to the Phoenician.

The surrounding property had been purchased in 1915 by his mother, Jessie Benton Evans. The Jokake Inn first opened in 1922, expanded as a resort in the winter season of 1927, did well, attracted nationally-known well-heeled clients, added the Jokake School for Girls in a low-slung arcade next door in 1933, and for long years offered such pleasures as moonlight picnics, tea dancing, motion pictures, gymkhana, and quail hunting in the lonesome American outback.

Back in 1930 that double bell tower was easily the tallest structure in the Scottsdale area. It was a strong vertical signal of thereness, with the Inn standing as both symbol and substance of civilization. Back then the cities of the valley were distant and distinct as planets, set into a vast emptiness where a motorist might stop to kill rattlesnakes not for sport but as public service. I imagine some of their guests were awfully glad to see that tower.

So already Evans gets points for historic significance. He and his mother are near the very root of many different historic themes in the valley. Immigrants from Chicago? Check, and as relatively early pioneers Evans may have directly and indirectly drawn others like Walter Bimson here. Wild-west prep schools? Their Jokake School for Girls was a prime example. Frank Lloyd Wright? Wright stayed at the Jokake Inn in 1927 when he consulted at the Arizona Biltmore, and was another Chicago immigrant, come to think of it.

There’s more. Tuberculosis? Evans came to the valley to cure his. Art colonies? Jessie Benton Evans by herself counted as an art colony. The valley’s history of resorts, and especially resorts as economic tools to lure midwestern industrialists out to the valley? Emphatic double check. One of the Jokake guests was John C. Lincoln, thus inspiring Lincoln to buy a chunk of desert land, build the Camelback Inn, hire mean old what’s-his-name to run it, court rich clients, and sell land, just as Evans did but on a grander scale.

Given that Evans’s best known architectural work was adobe, and having his mother Evans as a primary client, it would be easy to write him off as an amateur or naif.

The opposite is true.

By the time Evans arrived in the valley in 1923 at the age of 35, he’d traveled extensively with his mother in Belle Epoque Europe as a kid, earned a Master of Engineering degree from the Armour Institute in Chicago, had studied architecture at the University of Freiburg, and happened to be the son-in-law and sometime employee of William Gates, head of one of the premier terra cotta companies in the U.S.

Also, importantly, his mother had been hired by the Santa Fe Railroad and the Fred Harvey Company to paint — and visually mythologize — the southwest just as they’d hired Mary Colter to do the same architecturally. Evans had visited not only Europe but Mexico and New Mexico with an eye towards materials. So he was personally familiar with Colter and the novelistic charm of her work and the invented regional backstories cleverly worked into her buildings. Nearly a hundred years after, and in the rear view mirror, you have to forgive people for confusing all that elaborate railroad-company myth-making for real history.

Evans looked like a young Herbert Hoover. Physically weakened from tuberculosis and restricted to the dry valley air, unable to continue his executive engineering job with International Harvester, he once again took up architecture. With all that training he still only presented himself as an engineer and builder. Supposedly they called him “Adobe Bob” although that’s not easy to say out loud.

As an architect Evans was active from 1924 through 1947. All of the work is in Arizona, much of it more or less clustered around the Jokake property, and much of it for guests of the hotel. He ceased designing in 1947 and died in 1962. I get the sense that his architectural work hasn’t been fully explored.

Not all of his work was adobe. There’s Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Scottsdale as a significant work and about 35 private houses on his commission list. There’s a house for Duncan McDonald. There’s a house that Robert Goldwater came to own. One designed for John C. Lincoln. One for Donald Kellogg, which later sprouted an onion dome and blossomed into the Casa Blanca Inn. And one for the Newhall family, regrettably now demolished.

To see what Evans was capable of, drive over and have a look at the 1930 Rose Eisendrath house, near the southeast corner of Papago Park. It’s been recently, wonderfully, thankfully resuscitated by the city of Tempe. Eisendrath was the widow of a Chicago glove manufacturer and ran that house like a small resort unto itself, with organized camping expeditions and automobile desert tours and a citrus grove on a 40-acre property.

Today, inside and out, the Eisendrath House still carries a certain voltage. To be honest, if there’s any such thing as strict adobe architecture, this isn’t it: there’s a wood frame and a concrete foundation hidden under there, and many of those vigas support only themselves. But of course that’s not the point and who cares. Just take a good long look at all that playful irregular Pueblan massing, the vigas and lintels as color and formal punctuation, and especially, somehow, those finned exterior steps and their promise of direct communion with the sky. It’s romantic, very deliberately romantic. It’s got sensitivity and soul.

What more can you really ask for?

This article originally appeared in the September 2020 Issue of Defining Desert Living. Read the rest of the magazine here.