The Stewart Motor Company Building
a.k.a. Circles Discs and Tapes
802 North Central Ave @ McKinley in Phoenix, AZ
Since 1947 The Stewart Motor Company building, designed by W. Z. Smith, has been an important landmark in commercial architecture in Phoenix. Best known today as Circles Discs and Tapes from 1972 - 2009, the building is eligible to join the National Register of Historic Places as well as the City of Phoenix Historic Register. A previous effort to place the building on the register many years ago was brought to a halt during the process, much to the disappointment of the Stewart Family, which supported it. In 2013 and again in 2017, the streamline moderne building was voted into the Top 25 eligible yet uprotected Midcentury Marvels list by the Postwar Architecture Task Force of Greater Phoenix.
In 2010 Circles Discs and Tapes closed its doors, as a result of the triple-threat of the rise of electronic media distribution, the decline of Arizona's economy, and possibly the disruption of commerce that Light Rail construction on Central Avenue caused in recent years.
It sat on the market for several years before finally selling to Aspirant Development LL of the Empire Group, who plans to develop the property into condos and has voiced intention to apply for GPLET funding to make their financials work. After preliminary talks with leaders in the preservation community, Aspirant abruptly and shockingly demolished the roof portion of the building, possibly rendering the property ineligible for listing on the National Register and creating an uproar in the community. One of the most character-defining qualities of the building is the turntable, where Studebaker cars were displayed and rotated in the round window bay. Rumors tell the turntable still works! The building is literally a machine for selling in the postwar era and was once part of Phoenix's Automobile Row The nearby DeSoto building one block north is an excellent example of an extant building from this era that has been sensitively and adaptively reused.
Similar streamlined rounded-streetcorner features are found in local contemporary International/Moderne buildings of the same postwar era including Hanny's Department Store and Bragg's Pie Factory. Though they were added over store display windows in a later renovation, the radiating brick details on the southern face hearken to the craftsmanship behind Frank Lloyd Wright's Johnson Wax Building built in 1936.
After it outlived its purpose as an automobile showroom a local family, the Singers, purchased the building in 1972 and repurposed it as a record sales and distribution center: Circles Records, later Circles Discs and Tapes. Rotating Studebakers were replaced with rotating disco queens dancing on display as teens cruised Central Avenue for entertainment. Circles itself was a locally-owned business and Valley institution, also hosting a gleaming white anchor location in Scottsdale Fashion Square up until the outdoor mall's major remodel in the early 1990s.
The Stewart Motor Company building is an important patch in Downtown Phoenix's crazy-quilted urban fabric. It was built with a popular material for the mid-forties — red brick — which was painted pale yellow to reinforce the International/Moderne look. Once CMU and concrete came onto the scene in the 50s, traditional materials were often pricier and not used as frequently — what we see at Stewart Motor Co. is expressive use of a material that fell out of fashion. Stewart Motor integrates a streamlined architectural style with the new regional tendency toward low-lying, horizontal structures. Its turntable display window was one of the first innovations of its kind in the Southwest. The showroom layout exemplifies the postwar exuberance for automobile culture through a joyful dialogue with the streetscape, which is pleasant to enjoy both on foot or by car.
Modern Phoenix believes that the Stewart Motor Company / Circles Discs and Tapes building should be preserved and that the owners, local community groups and City of Phoenix government should help maintain the integrity of this building and its role in Phoenix culture and history. While its future hangs in the balance and current owners have not pursued historic designation, this building is at risk. The Modern Phoenix Neighborhood Network and Arizona Preservation Foundation will closely follow this story as it develops.
For more information on the Stewart Motor Company building's history past and present, visit:
- Storm Clouds Circle
- Back off or the Building Gets It
- Demolition Starts on Iconic Phoenix Building
- Phoenix Developer Apologizes for Demolition
- The Phoenix New Times
- The Downtown Devil
- ABC News 15 includes video
- Downtown Phoenix Partnership
- Light Rail Blogger
- Mid-Century Marvels
Vintage video courtesy of the Stewart Family archives
So what to do? We don't just sit around.
We make a ripple in the pond!Phoenix is notorious as a teardown culture—ANY building can be at risk and modern designs are no exception. Modern Phoenix has assisted as a communication forum and media outlet for the preservation of the Frank Henry Valley National Bank building site, the Tempe Dome Bank, The David Wright House, Circles Records, and the White Gates residence by Al Beadle. We are ONLY able to succeed in these efforts IF WE KNOW ABOUT BUILDINGS IN DANGER! If we don't know, WE CAN'T HELP. It is easy to feel helpless in persuading the actions of others. This checklist of small but significant actions will come in handy next time you become aware of an endangered midcentury modern property. Your action may have a ripple-in-the-pond effect. Will you be the hero brave enough to skip the first stone?
- Most importantly, tell somebody. Anybody. Start up a dialogue about why this property is important to you, and what you can do about it.
- Tell The Postwar Architecture task Force of Greater Phoenix as soon as you can, even if you assume we already know. Then make a public post in the Marketplace section of our message boards or on the PATF Facebook page.
- Alert our member realtors who specialize in marketing midcentury modern properties. Ask them if they have already seen the property listed on our site. Members post sightings here all the time (even if they are not their own listings).
- Go door-knocking, even if it is just one house or business. Talk with your neighbors. Inform them on the impact that teardowns have on the fabric of an entire community. There are tons of printable PDFs at the National Trust for Historic Preservation site that are particularly helpful for those without internet access. ModernPhoenix hosts a more locally-focused article on the topic of teardowns as well. Printouts work wonders. If the owner is elderly, boost web page printouts to a larger font size; they'll appreciate it.
- Use the GIS Maps at the County Assessor's website to find out who has recently purchased a significant home in your area, and use the information on public record to reach out to them (since sometimes they may not be living at the property site).
- Research the building or architect on Modern Phoenix. This will help you determine the building's cultural significance and whether others value it like you do.
- Contact the Phoenix Historic Preservation office and ask if they can help.
- Contact the Arizona Preservation Foundation and consider applying for a "Most Endangered Historic Places" listing. White Gates and Valley National Bank both earned the title and the designation has assisted in receiving positive publicity and aid.
- Use the National Trust for Historic Preservation's social media campaigns to upload photos and videos for its "This Place Matters" hashtag. Then send the link out to everyone you know for an instant viral campaign!
- Write your Mayor or city council member a note about how disappointing it is to not have any midcentury modern zoning overlays for Phoenix's most vulnerable neighborhoods. With proper budgeting for research on midcentury modern neighborhoods, homeowners would become more aware of the value of their own homes, and become less motivated to sell for teardown prices.