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Al Beadle house is just the latest. Why doesn't Phoenix protect its history?

I was out of town when the news about White Gates broke a couple of weeks ago. The fuming reached me in angry emails and text messages and social media posts. But the outrage was so palpable, I might have heard it audibly, all the way to Cleveland.

How, people wanted to know, could this building be scheduled for demolition? Didn’t the new owner understand the significance of architect Alfred Beadle’s midcentury designs here in our desert city? How could the city of Phoenix even allow a demo permit to be pulled for this gorgeous and noteworthy structure?

We’ve heard it all before. This time, it’s about White Gates, also known as Beadle House No. 6, the house Beadle built for himself and his family in 1954. Wrapped in ellipsoid plaster screens made of metal flashing and two-by-fours, this floating rectangle of a residence stands in contrast to the red rocks of Camelback Mountain’s rugged southern slope. White Gates is considered a forerunner to the notable architect’s "Beadle Box" designs, which he became known for in the 1960s.

Locals caught wind of the demolition permit Sunday before last, and the outcry was immediate, from historic preservationists, Beadle fans and Phoenicians fond of the house’s distinctive, space-age design. They took to social media, launching another campaign to save a piece of our local history. The responses came mostly in the form of questions: Can’t White Gates be moved to another lot? Can the city stop the demolition? Isn't this building protected?

The answer to these questions appears to be no. I’ve heard there are concerns about the building’s general condition, which would prevent it being relocated. White Gates, I’m told, is now a gutted shell — no more than that beautiful façade, and behind it, an empty box. On a very valuable plot of land.

I have questions of my own. Where is our Historic Preservation Office in this mix? Why aren’t they working to get buildings like White Gates protected before they wind up on the demo list? Can an Historic Preservation officer just refuse to sign a demolition permit? Can Phoenix City Council override such an authorization? And here’s one: Why does it always seem to fall to the same handful of local preservationists, working alone or on a hastily built ad hoc committee, to stop the destruction of one building at a time?

And then there’s the obvious question: Does every building need to be saved? I don’t think so, and I know some local preservationists agree. They know they need to pick their battles against another greedy developer by going to bat for the most important structures.

But please, don’t ask me if every Alfred Beadle building should be saved, restored, preserved. I’ve never seen one of this radical architect’s homes or commercial buildings I didn’t want to marry. I live in a Beadle building, and from its terraces I can see Beadle’s Fifth Avenue Medical Building, that stunning concrete and steel box just north of Osborn Road — one of the best buildings in town. I’m not ashamed to admit I wept when his glass-box Mountain Bell midrise was demolished in 2009.

When the new owner of White Gates took title on the property late last month, he immediately requested a demolition permit because, well, he could. Once he succeeds in getting White Gates knocked over, he can presumably build something that will bring him greater resale value.

At your expense, of course. Because one more piece of your local landscape will have been bulldozed; one more building that illustrated Phoenix — that represented an era of our desert community and its contribution to architecture’s greater good; that put Phoenix on the architectural map — will be gone. Replaced by another building that looks like — I don’t know what it will look like. It doesn’t matter. It won’t be something that was conceived and built during a time when Scandinavian architecture was influencing midcentury design; back when the south side of Camelback Mountain was first being developed. When Alfred Beadle was changing the idea of what our city could look like, and thinking about something bigger than how much money he would be making once his latest brainchild was completed. I can imagine he was thinking about efficiency and organization and style, about both embracing and reflecting the desert sun. It’s a question I can’t really answer: What was Alfred Beadle thinking about when he created this distinctive home for his family? But I can’t imagine he was thinking, "This is just another house. Maybe someone will knock it down and replace it with something half as interesting in 70 years." I don’t think Al Beadle was thinking, "Who cares?" It’s just another house. Whatever.

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Robrt Pela is a contributor to KJZZ's The Show.