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 for — but not been registered — as a historic property.
In 2010 Circles Discs and Tapes will close 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.
Notable primarily for its Studebaker-sized turntable in the rotunda display window, the building is literally a machine for selling in the postwar era. 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 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 as a locally-owned business was a 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 white 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 one of the last great brick beauties in Phoenix where brick is used in an expressive manner. 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.
Ideally, this building will find a sympathetic owner.
For more information on the Stewart Motor Company building's history past and present, visit:
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, 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 Modern Phoenix as soon as you can, even if you assume we already know. We might not. Either directly email the Editor (good start) or make a public announcement in the Marketplace section of our message boards (even better).
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) Good places to start are:
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 last year and the designation has assisted in receiving positive publicity and aide.
Contact the Western Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation at 415.947.0692. Let them know and ask for their assistance in saving these resources as part of it’s new Modernism + Recent Past Initiative.
Use the National Trust for Historic Preservation to upload photos and videos for its "This Place Matters" campaign. 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.