When a visitor first arrives in Phoenix, his thoughts tend to revolve around how new the city looks. After all, the city has grown from about 100,000 in 1950 to more than 1.6 million today, making it the sixth largest city in the country. Such explosive growth has led to a feeling of newness everywhere. But the city has a historical center. Just east of downtown lies Heritage Square, the last remaining original block in the city.
Tucked neatly into a pocket between the Arizona Science Center and Arizona State University’s downtown satellite campus (the main campus is in Tempe, an eastern suburb), Heritage Square contains a couple of museums and several restaurants built into original houses dating from the late 19th Century. It also has a lovely outdoor patio area frequently used for weddings and other special events.
One of the historic houses, now a restaurant.
Heritage Square celebrates the history of Phoenix. Old maps of the city dating from 1895 (and even earlier) are on display outside the gift shop, showing the area that is now downtown back when the city had a population of less than 5,000 eking out an existence in the desert city originally built around farming (it sits at the conflux of the Salt and Gila Rivers and early plans included a comprehensive canal system) and later around copper mining. The existing block sat in the northeastern corner of the original city.
The best known landmark in Heritage Square is a Victorian mansion, the Rosson House. Named for the family that built the home (Dr. Rosson was an army physician and eventual mayor of Phoenix), the Rosson House contains about 4,000 square feet on three levels (including an attic that was fully finished in the house’s later years). The main floors of the home contain four bedrooms and a single bathroom.
The Rosson House
Dr. Rosson built the home in 1895 for the cost of $7,500. In 1897, it was sold for $10,000 to the Goldberg family, one of the city’s Jewish founding families. Owned later by three more families, it was later converted into a boarding house (at which time the attic was finished and a second bathroom added) and, when the Heritage Square Foundation acquired it in 1974, nineteen people were living in it. Six years and $750,000 of renovation later, the Rosson House opened to the public as a museum, with period furnishings, some of which was original to the home – the Goldbergs have apparently been very generous with donating anything dating back to that period, like a baby carriage used while they were living there, and currently displayed near the main entrance.
The staircase is original to the house, as are the wood floors. The wallpapers are replica. Note the baby carriage in the corner.
Admission to the house is only via guided tour. Tours take about an hour, and talk about both the home and the city it has come to represent. Make sure to look at the historic medical tools in the office. They are really something!
In addition to medical tools, this era human body display was in the office. Layers “peel” back to reveal musculature, blood vessels, and bones.
The Rosson House also has special tours, like a Victorian How-To night, where lessons will be given in Victorian-era courting, cooking, cleanliness, and more!
For a more hands-on experience in Heritage Square, look no further than the Handcrafted Museum. Built into another original house, the Museum is home to old tools. Ranging from antique typewriters to a pedal-powered wood saw, Handcrafted is sure to bring a smile to your face because everything in the Museum can be played with! For a complete experience, the small gift shop offers crafting kits, where visitors can build their own string art or stuffed animal using the tools found there. I was even allowed to make my own paper, though sadly it didn’t dry in time for me to take it home. I did, however, saw and sand several pieces of wood with the pedal-operated devices!
Happily sawing away!
All that building is bound to lead to hunger, and Heritage Square has several restaurants to choose from. But look no further than Pizzeria Bianco, known for some of the best pizza anywhere in the country, let alone the city. Waits can be immense, so put your name in while you are across the street at Handcrafted, then enjoy a truly wonderful pizza experience. This trip, I opted for the “wise guy,” a thin crust topped with house-smoked mozzarella, fennel sausage, and onions. I had it half with sauce and half without, and it was marvelous both ways!
While Phoenix may not be the most popular tourist destination, if you find yourself there for business or pleasure, you should really give yourself a couple hours to explore Heritage Square. You won’t regret your journey into the history of the area!
Note: I would like to thank the Heritage Square Foundation for their generosity in having me as their guest for this experience. I truly had a blast!
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