Date Palm Manor Historic District
The Date Palm Manor Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2015. Portions of the content of this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2016, The Gombach Group.
The Date Palm Manor Historic District, built 1954-1962, is a unique neighborhood that is representative of new approaches to homebuilding that emerged at this time. Unlike the typical tract-style residential subdivisions of the period that were built quickly and efficiently with standardized designs, Date Palm Manor is a neighborhood of spacious custom-built homes that exhibit the highest artistic expression of mid-century Ranch Style architecture. The builder's focus on craftsmanship and innovative design recognized that there was a growing market for moderately expensive custom homes. The high standards of homebuilding introduced in Date Palm Manor became more common in the 1960s as the housing market in Tempe grew larger and more competitive. Date Palm Manor is also notable for its unique landscape theme which pays respect to the agricultural heritage of the land by preserving remnants of the commercial date palm grove that once occupied the site.
The decade of the 1950s represents a dramatic transition in the development of the city of Tempe. At the end of World War II Tempe was a small town with a strong agriculture-based economy, but as millions of returning servicemen with young families started looking for a place to settle and start a new life, many looked to central Arizona, with its warm sunny climate and plenty of undeveloped land. The postwar boom brought the sudden influx of new residents and businesses that quickly changed the character of Tempe. Between 1950 and 1960, the city's population rose from 7,686 to 24,897, a 224 percent increase. Construction of new subdivisions soon pushed municipal boundaries outward. The small teachers' college that had been a part of the community since 1886 became a four-year liberal arts college in 1945 and quickly grew to become Arizona State University in 1958 . By 1960 Tempe had been completely transformed into a modern new city with a diverse economic base.
Judson A. Harmon received a cash entry patent for the northwest quarter of Section 27, T.1 N.,R. 4 E., in 1891. It was productive farmland for field crops, receiving irrigation water from the Western Extension Canal, one of the branches of the Tempe Canal. In 1923 a man named Nichols turned a 15-acre parcel of this land into the Valsunda Date Gardens, one of the first commercial date groves in central Arizona. The U.S. Department of Agriculture began importing date palms from North Africa and the Middle East in the 1890s to develop a new commercial crop in the arid Southwest The Tempe Date Farm, a USDA Agriculture Experiment Station, was established two miles south of Tempe in 1900 and started breeding stock of the drought-tolerant Phoenix dactylifera variety to distribute to local farmers. By 1934 there was about 400 acres planted in date palms in the Salt River Valley, mostly in small date gardens of just a few acres. The Valsunda Date Gardens was operated by a man named Nichols, and then by Cole and Refsnes. Demand and price for the sugary fruit went up in the 1940s, making even small gardens very profitable for a while, but in the early 1950s prices quickly declined. However, by this time agricultural land near Tempe was rapidly growing in value as an unprecedented postwar boom brought construction of dozens of new residential subdivisions, constantly pushing the boundaries of the city outward. Many local farmers sold their land for much more than the value of the crops they could grow on it. It was at this time that Presley L. Agnew, a young and ambitious homebuilder, acquired the date farm property.
Presley L. Agnew, originally from Indiana, served in the U.S. Army from 1944-1947. After he was discharged from service he moved to Phoenix and began building individual homes in several new subdivisions, including McDowell Manors, Greenhaw Place, and Westwood Manor. Agnew and a partner, Marvin Siervogal, incorporated the Agnew Construction Company in August 1953. Soon after, Agnew announced his plans to build Date Palm Manor, an exclusive new subdivision of large custom-built houses on the date grove south of Tempe. In January 1954 the Tempe City Council began discussions on annexing an area south of the city, and with Ordinance Number 226, on February 11, 1954, formally annexed a large area north and south of Broadway Road that included the new Tempe High School and the Date Palm Manor tract. Agnew took out his first three building permits in April and began building large elegant 3- and 4-bedroom homes that sold for $10,000-14,000, more than twice the price of new homes in other Tempe subdivisions. Most of the homes were built by Agnew; some individuals bought a lot and hired their own contractor to build a house but deed restrictions specified minimum construction requirements, including a size of no less than 1,200 square feet. Many of the houses in Date Palm Manor were originally cooled by evaporative cooler, but some were built with central air conditioning, which was not common at that time. A grand opening for the new subdivision was set for July 1954, and all sales were handled by Joe Williams and Ray Ashley of the Tempe Realty Company. The medium-sized subdivision of 38 lots for single-family homes was substantially built out by 1959.
After World War II, the green, well-manicured lawn became a universal feature of suburban homes across the country. The appearance of the front yard in particular became a subtle status symbol of the homeowner's leisure time and work ethic. However, in central Arizona it was difficult to maintain a lush landscape around the home in such an arid desert environment with only 7 inches of rain per year. New subdivisions built in Tempe in the late 1940s and early 1950s relied on a subsurface flood irrigation system to create a lush, green landscape of non-native trees and grass lawns; however, these irrigation systems were expensive to maintain and the city's commitment to expanding residential irrigation was waning. Date Palm Manor was the first subdivision in Tempe that was planned to not rely on flood irrigation. Nonetheless, all of the properties in Date Palm Manor still maintained grass lawns and mature trees, but watered by sprinkler and hose. At least one property, the Munk House at 19 W Palmcroft Dr, did receive irrigation water from another source. However, the landscape of the neighborhood is visually dominated by the towering remnants of the Valsunda Date Gardens. Most rows of palm trees had been removed to accommodate the houses and streets, but the evenly spaced square grid is clearly evident. Curving streets were designed to offset the straight lines of the trees. At a time when homebuilding was becoming very competitive, Agnew had found a distinctive selling point by preserving an authentic agrarian setting that gave the neighborhood a quiet, secluded feel.
Agnew also provided a finished neighborhood, complete with asphalt-paved streets, continuous sidewalks with rolled curbs, and utilities. This was a new approach to subdivision development in Tempe. Up to this time residential subdivisions were left with graded dirt roads when the last house was built and homeowners generally had to form an improvement district to pave streets. It was often several years after the houses were built and occupied before the neighborhood infrastructure was completed. Subdivisions that were developed after Date Palm Manor adhered to this new practice of providing streets and other features when the neighborhood was being built.
New homeowners that moved into Date Palm Manor were predominantly downtown business owners and university professors. Though it was a small neighborhood, many of its residents were part of the new postwar leadership of Tempe as it began to expand beyond its agriculture base, including Mayor Ross R. Rice and several City Council members of the 1950s and early 1960s. One of the largest houses (121 W. Palmcroft Dr) was the home of Hayden C. Hayden, owner of Tempe's oldest and largest business, the Hayden Flour Mill, and grandson of the city's founder, Charles Hayden. The subdivision was also home to homebuilders and developers E. J. Cyr, Marion Weary, and Kenneth S. Clark; Agnew built his own residence on the corner of Palmcroft and Dromedary (126 W. Palmcroft Dr).
Date Palm Manor Historic District provides the best example of an exclusive custom home subdivision in Tempe in the mid-1950s. Prior to 1954, large custom homes were usually built in University Park (University Park Historic District), an 80-acre subdivision that was started in 1945 but was almost built out at the time that Date Palm Manor was established. Date Palm Manor was also the first residential subdivision built south of Broadway Road, leading a trend of developing new tracts to the south, which would be the primary direction of Tempe's municipal growth through the 1960s.
The Ranch style was introduced in California in the 1930s and quickly became a popular regional style. After the war, its innovative design and construction fit well with emerging social, economic, and technological trends. Eventually it became the dominant architectural style in the United States where, particularly in the West, it would represent the most ubiquitous house-form for the next 30 years. In contrast to previous Period Revival styles, early Ranch architecture was deeply rooted in the American West. The Ranch style drew its inspiration from the 19th century adobe ranch houses of California, as well as the Craftsman style and early Frank Lloyd Wright Prairie houses. The simple and sparsely adorned houses reflected the romantic imagery of the past and the new social trends of informality and casual home life embodied in post-war suburbia. The Ranch house typically featured a low-pitched roof with deep eaves and a few traditional elements such as clapboard, false shutters, and a small entry porch. It also reflected the growing importance of the automobile, which brought sprawling subdivisions with larger lots, allowing the broadest side of the house to be the primary facade. The low horizontal profile of the home facing the street shows many visible planes and angles, creating a bigger, more spacious look for a small house. The new orientation of the house also placed more emphasis on the back yard, and large windows, glass doors, and patios often faced a landscaped private refuge at the rear of the lot. The substantial break from the more exotic designs and materials of the earlier Period Revival styles reflects the new postwar optimism for the future and modernism's tenets of simple, clear, unpretentious design.
Perhaps the greatest advantage that the Ranch style had in the early postwar period was its simplicity of design and construction, which allowed fast and efficient mass production of homes to meet the growing demand for affordable housing. Construction on a cost-efficient concrete slab surmounted by traditional wood frame, brick, or concrete block bearing walls was typical. The introduction of steel casement windows and other standardized building components cut construction time and costs considerably. The typical house built in the late 1940s or early 1950s was generally small with a simple design and a stark exterior with little or no ornamentation; collectively, all of the houses in a subdivision reflected the same standardized design with only slight variations. The early postwar Ranch style was greatly constrained by the restrictive guidelines of the Federal Housing Administration and the urgent need to efficiently build millions of new homes.
By the mid 1950s, building restrictions were eased and the typical Ranch house incorporated more decorative elements, such as brick wainscot, scroll-cut fascia, board-and-batten siding, eyebrow dormers, wrought iron porch posts, and weeping mortar. At this time, concrete block, particularly 4-inch concrete masonry units known as "pumice block," a lightweight locally manufactured product made from native volcanic materials, became the building material of choice for the majority of Arizona builders. It was cheap, costing an average of $500 less per house than wood, and was locally manufactured. Superlite Builders Supply Company was established in Phoenix in 1945, and within 15 years grew to be the largest block manufacturer in the United States. Its pumice block was lighter in weight with a higher fire rating, a higher R value, and was more effective for sound absorption (NRC rating). Ultimately, concrete block would become the least expensive and most readily available building material in the Phoenix metropolitan area, largely as a result of the phenomenal postwar success of the locally operated Superlite Company.
However, Date Palm Manor was unlike any other residential development in Tempe at the time. The houses were not built fast and efficiently, but with skilled craftsmanship and attention to detail that represent the highest artistic expression of the Ranch style. As there was clearly a growing market for expensive houses, there were no restraints on size and design. The Agnew Construction Company used a variety of building materials and decorative elements. As every house had a unique design, the neighborhood as a whole exhibits every plan and profile associated with the Ranch house. There are two houses not designed in the Ranch style, but rather, representative of the Contemporary and Split-Level styles. Agnew did use the nearly universal concrete block as his primary building material, but exterior walls were usually not plain block surfaces. Other contrasting materials-brick, wood, stucco, pierced block, metal and stone-were often overlaid or imbedded in the masonry for unique effect. Date Palm Manor was strikingly different in the mid-1950s, but it was a precursor to a new style of building that would become more common in the 1960s. The Housing Act of 1954 recognized the changes in the market, and lowered the amount of down payment required for houses costing up to $25,000. This made it possible to finance larger houses. By 1960 there was much greater diversity in residential architecture. Houses generally became larger and more richly decorated, and builders started offering a greater variety of different models with more optional features.
Contributing resources in the Date Palm Manor Historic District exhibit a very high level of architectural integrity. The neighborhood clearly conveys its historic appearance and sense of place and merits recognition for its outstanding examples of Ranch style architecture.
† Scott Solliday, Date Palm Manor Neighborhood Association, Date Palm Manor Historic District, Maricopa County, AZ, nomination document, 2015, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.