The story that lies beneath Phoenix-The Arizona Republic

Archaeologists uncover history’s leftovers on CityScape site

The prehistoric pit houses, a century-old cosmetic-cream jar and antique bricks tell the story of the first merchants in downtown Phoenix.

Archaeologists earlier this month found those artifacts deep beneath the downtown parking lot where on Monday crews will begin building a $900 million hub of shops, offices and restaurants.

When it’s complete, developers say, CityScape will pump vitality into a three-block parcel near Central Avenue and Washington Street, bringing the area full circle. Long before it was dominated by a park and the parking lot, that intersection was the cradle of Phoenix commerce.

During a four-week dig, scientists found wall fragments dating to the late 1800s – what’s left of the first businesses built by Anglo and Mexican settlers. John Y.T. Smith’s mill, the Hotel Luhrs and attorney Edward Irvine’s adobe and brick buildings were the town’s commercial heart during that period.

"We are looking at the very beginnings of the city of Phoenix," city archaeologist Todd Bostwick said.

Underneath the 19th-century foundations, the team of archaeologists also found the buried remnants of about a dozen prehistoric pit houses. Hohokam farmers who lived in the Valley between A.D. 1 and 1450 probably occupied them, archaeologists say. No human remains were found.

Since a chunk of the land had been a parking lot for decades, Bostwick knew there was a good chance that artifacts were preserved underground.

Major development

CityScape will infuse downtown with shops, restaurants, an upscale grocery store, apartments, condos, offices and eventually two hotels, developers say.

The development area is bounded by First Avenue and Second, Washington and Jefferson streets. Eventually, Patriots Square, a 2.2-acre park constructed with red bricks, will be razed and replaced with a series of open spaces.

The names of two anchor tenants – a financial-services firm and one of the hotels, which will be part of the San Francisco-based Kimpton Hotels chain – are expected to be announced Monday. The first phase of the project will open in November 2009, developers say.

Jeff Moloznik, a development manager for Red Development LLC, said it was interesting to learn that some of the first businesses in the city were the same kind planned for the new project. Red Development and CDK Partners LLC are the project’s developers.

CityScape developers plan to display some of the finds at Monday’s groundbreaking ceremony.

They are also exploring ways to incorporate antique bricks, artifacts or old business names into the development, he said.

Over the years, floods, silt and wind buried pit houses and pioneer-era buildings under a few feet of dirt.

The building fragments date to a time when only a few hundred people, about half of them Mexican settlers and half of them Anglos, lived in what is now Phoenix.

Early settlers eked out a hardscrabble life. Relations with Native Americans, including the Gila River, Maricopa, Pima and Apache tribes, were sometimes friendly, sometimes tense.

The intersection of Central Avenue and Washington Street was the heart of Phoenix life in the late 1800s, historians say.

Mills, saloons, government buildings, shops and professional offices sprang up in that area.

Experts knew about the pioneer-era businesses, but State Historic Preservation Officer James Garrison said he was astounded by how much was preserved under the parking lot.

Some of century-old walls fragments ran for a dozen feet, and one adobe cellar was practically intact.

"The first two-story building in Phoenix was sitting on top of a pit house," Garrison said.

Even the Hohokam finds hinted at trade.

Archaeologists found a bracelet made from a seashell that is found only at a tourist destination in Mexico that is familiar to Arizonans.

"We aren’t the first to vacation at Rocky Point," Bostwick said.

Jahna Berry

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