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Staying Power: A pair of realtors helped define Phoenix architecture

The Show series Exit Interview featured a series of conversations with people who had made their mark on Phoenix — and then left. They hit a ceiling or needed to grow.

Now, Staying Power looks at people who have made Arizona their home — like real estate agents Scott and Debbie Jarson. 

Full interview

Back in the 1980s and '90s, Phoenix wasn't necessarily the place you would turn to find great architecture.

SCOTT JARSON: It was a classic least stucco with a red tile roof and acres of, of newly minted subdivisions.

Drive around neighborhoods back then and you'd see a whole lot of those red tile roofed cookie cutter homes. And for our next guests who have spent their careers selling real estate here, it started to become a problem.

SCOTT JARSON: We had a good career in that we were selling a lot of those homes and that's kind of where we felt, or at least I felt, we were starting to become part of the problem is this, this sort of reach out into the desert, the sprawl, it didn't represent exactly where we were coming from.

That's Scott Jarson. It was around 1990 that he and his wife of 42 years, Debbie, changed direction and began to do something pretty bold in the new subdivision, heavy landscape in Phoenix.

DEBBIE JARSON: At the time, we were selling these houses and, and, and they're fine. Nothing's wrong with them, but, but we just decided that it wasn't, it wasn't what we wanted to sell.

I actually, I, I turned to Scott one day and he said, I want to get out of the business. And I said, well, what would you do if you stayed in the business? And he said, well, I like architecture. I'd sell architecture. And this is in 1990. And I said, well, let's sell architecture.

They call it architecturally unique homes and their colleagues? Well, they thought they were crazy.

SCOTT JARSON: Well, there was nobody that was interested in architecture in real estate. At that time, there was a few people that would be active in the newly founded historic neighborhoods, but there was nobody who was overall looking at the kind of depth of design, even midcentury homes weren't even considered midcentury at the time. And so, it was interesting, our peer group, in real estate thought it was really humorous that we would go down this path and were convinced we'd never sell anything.

There wasn't a lot of people very interested in contemporary and modernist homes at the time. In fact, most real estate agents didn't want to represent them. They had a longer sale cycle, they couldn't quite understand them. And so we, we actually got a little bit of ribbing from our peers about this. Like, you'll never sell another house again.

How did you build it? Was it hard at first?

DEBBIE JARSON: Yeah, it was, it, it was hard, but it was really natural for us because it's what we enjoyed. And we found that there were a lot of like-minded people who also felt that way, too, that had been kind of, you know, in the closet, so to speak, because they, nobody, you know, would, would listen to them and talk about architecture or, or come see their architectural home.

But over the years as the Valley grew and their business grew, that changed.

SCOTT JARSON. There's more here than I think people realize. We, we get so lucky having this, you know, we're a post war town, everything boomed here, post World War II. And so we got a lot of midcentury architects homegrown Al Beadle had a great career here, Ralph Haver, all these midcentury houses that are now really celebrated, but before they were hidden gems.

I mean, so these are things like the Ralph Haver houses have shot up in value, and you can't get an Al Beadle home for under $1 million. Like these, the midcentury thing has boomed. Do you think you, do you feel like you two were a part of, kind of making that a staple of Phoenix architecture and making those things valued?

DEBBIE JARSON: Yeah, we do. You know, I don't, we don't want to take credit for, for all of that. And it's happened across the country as well. But we do feel like we, we, we got it out. We let our little part of the world know that these were good homes and, and the way that they were designed was thoughtful and they, they really had a place here and, and anybody could live in them no matter how old the home was.

SCOTT JARSON: And it, it was a lot of education, too, because a lot of these houses were frankly overlooked at the time. They, like, as you mentioned, they weren't celebrated much. And we did our, our part in selling a lot of these houses and kept people from putting on a red tile roof and stuccoing them ,and just live in them for a while, you, you, you, you'll get the feeling. And I'm so happy that the valley has pretty much caught up to how rare it is that we have this kind of real estate inventory here. It's unique.

So I want to talk about what you love about a really well designed house and what makes it sort of a Phoenix house. Like, is there something that is signature here or a couple of things that may be your signature here that you're really, you're not going to find everywhere else.

DEBBIE JARSON: Well, I think that a well designed house is very thoughtful. The house itself is well placed on the land. That's the one thing that we see often in homes that are not well designed is that you, the house might look good on paper, but when you go and see it at the site, it's a whole another thing. Sometimes you think a house could be just shifted just a little bit and it would be perfect, but that wasn't thought of. But good architects think of those things.

I would have never thought of that, like the actual placement on the lot of the house.

SCOTT JARSON: One of the other key signature things about, I think good design, good architecture is, is the scale, right? And by and large, they're, they're more humanist. The house sort of comforts you in a, in a great way. People think of modern architectures like steel and glass, but, but a good architect will control that space so that the light comforts you in the day, and I, I think you see this in the better Arizona designs. The, the good architects here know how to control the sun. They know how to keep the sun off of that steel and glass and make it, a year-round house that you can enjoy in all kinds of weather, even our extreme climate here in Arizona.

So, I mean, obviously your careers have been long here and you've done a lot in the way that people understand what is good architecture in Phoenix. I wonder, looking back on it, did you plan to still be here this many decades later?

DEBBIE JARSON: It was one of the first questions I asked Scott.


DEBBIE JARSON: You know, it's, the desert is a place, especially the Arizona desert, Sonoran Desert is, is really a unique environment and it's a place that really grows on you and it's hard to leave. It's, it's, it's the only place in the country like it. And it's beautiful. I mean, every time of year you can find something really beautiful. So I tend to want to stay.

SCOTT JARSON: Yeah. And I, you know, I, I'm a desert kid, throughout, I mean, just, you know, I grew up here, I'm used to the flora and fauna. I like the subtle change of seasons we have here. You know, it's crossed our minds to go to other places and we've had opportunities for that. But there's something about this place that for us is just magical. It's not like anyplace else. And it's got a signature all its own.

I asked my father who moved here in the '50s from Michigan. He could have lived at that time anywhere in the U.S. And for a time he lived in San Diego. And I said, dad, what made you choose the Valley of the Sun? Why did you come to Phoenix as home? And he, he said, when I hit the Arizona desert and I could see across that clear sky, this was a horizon that had no limits for me as a man. I could do anything here and didn't have a legacy that maybe came with Michigan for him. So I've always thought about that and I thought that is part of the amazing allure of this Valley is that you make your own legacy here. And it is a place of big ideas and broad dreams. It's hard to leave it.

So now it sounds like you have two sons who are in the family business. Do you think that they'll stick around? Are they gonna pass this on?

DEBBIE SCOTT: I actually think they will. I tried to get them to go to other places out of college and neither of them wanted to leave. So I, I do, I think they'll, they'll stay here. I mean, the, they both, they both want to see the world. I think they'll travel quite a bit. But as far as living, this is where they want to live.

So I wonder lastly then, looking back on a big career here and, you know, you're still in the midst of it, you're not done by any means What do you hope is your legacy or what do you hope to achieve before you're done?

SCOTT JARSON: Just this, this overall education and appreciation of what's already here and what's come here before and what we're so lucky to have to celebrate this, this midcentury modern history, which is now really mainstream but was so forgotten for a long time. Our roots are pretty interesting here, and we're different from other places in the country. So if our conversation in real estate can enlighten a few people, maybe open their minds a little bit to what's here and maybe attract a few more creative people in and keep them, keep them in Arizona. Then that's something we can be really proud of.

Do you think we're discounted? Do you think those people kind of look at Phoenix and say, oh, why Phoenix, right?

SCOTT JARSON: Yeah, I have a really strong opinion about that and, and I, I've been here long enough to see these cycles of creativity come and go. So we'll, we'll get a really strong, vibrant creative community that will often some sort of pick up and leave and then we'll cycle back again. And that's exciting because every wave of that brings the new ideas and a fresh way of looking at living here. And so from that standpoint, I actually think this is a very creative place. It just runs hot and cold sometimes.

I love that.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.