Remembering Lenny Monti's Restaurant

Sep 25, 2018

Much has been written about Monti's La Casa Vieja, one of the oldest and most famous restaurants in all of Phoenix. But much less attention has been given to the second Monti's location in North Phoenix - one that has nearly been forgotten to history. Today, I hope to tell that story.

The Hayden House
It was 1873 when Charles Trumbull Hayden, a businessman and one of the earliest settlers of Tempe, built an adobe hacienda for his family, located directly across the street from his flour mill. Other websites document the history of the building with much greater detail than I can, but over the years it underwent a number of expansions and served as a boarding house, private residence, and a restaurant. In 1924, the house was restored to its original appearance.

Monti's La Casa Vieja
In 1947, Leonard F. Monti, a World War II veteran, moved to Chandler and opened a restaurant called Monti's Grill. In 1954, he bought Hayden's adobe house and opened Monti's La Casa Vieja ("The Old House") in 1956.

Monti's La Casa Vieja restaurant in Tempe operated for 58 years before closing in 2014.
The restaurant was famous for its Western decor and art collection and was popular for many years - serving up steaks, prime rib, seafood, and other dishes. Later additions brought the property to 20,769 square feet, creating an unusual interior layout that was a labyrinth of more than a dozen connected rooms.

Leonard Monti passed the family business down to his son Michael Monti in 1993, and sadly the founder "Lenny" as he was often called passed away in 1997 at 85 years old. The restaurant is recognized as one of the oldest structures in the Salt River Valley, and the oldest continuously occupied structure in Tempe. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984 and the Tempe Historic Property Register in 2000.

End of an Era
After 58 years, Michael Monti announced in 2014 that the restaurant's rising costs of operation had forced him to sell the property. The famous Monti's La Casa Vieja closed in late 2014 after 58 years of service. The building and its 2.5 acres of land were sold to a Colorado based developer, Hensel Phelps, who planned to build a new mixed-use office/retail development called One Hundred Mill. The later additions to the Hayden House were demolished, but the original adobe structure was preserved and was intended for use as a restaurant.

At the time of writing in late 2018, no construction has taken place and the developer had agreed to sell the building back to the City of Tempe as well as invest in renovations and improvements to the 145 year old structure, and reimburse the city for property tax breaks that were given as an incentive.

Lenny Monti's House of Steaks
Lenny Monti's House of Steaks - Phoenix
Not much is known about the history of Lenny Monti's second location in North Phoenix. The restaurant was formerly located at 12025 N 19th Ave. (near 19th Ave. and Cactus Rd.) at the base of Shaw Butte mountain.

Historical aerial imagery shows a building in that location in the Spring of 1976.

The November 19, 1981 issue of the Arizona Republic carried this ad for Monti's:
Lenny & his family invite you to celebrate Thanksgiving Day. Complete turkey dinner $25 w/all the trimmings plus dessert. Children's portions only $3.00. We will be serving from our regular menu also. For Thanksgiving reservations call 997-5844. 12025 N 19th Ave Phoenix. 19th Ave and Cactus.

A later advertisement from May 22, 1998 featured a section of "North Phoenix Community Cuisine" with the following advertisement for Monti's:

LENNY MONTI'S RESTAURANT 12025 N. 19th Ave. - 997-5844 Upholding a nearly 50 year tradition isn't easy, but Leonard Monti, Jr., son Mario and daughter, Gina continue to serve Phoenix at 19th Avenue and Cactus with the same excellence in food and warm ambiance that his parents began back in 1947. Original artwork along with native American art and jewelry are showcased in an elegant western decor; a perfect compliment to Lenny Monti's famous steaks, prime rib and mouth watering seafood. An outdoor dining area surrounds a fountain in the courtyard. Enjoy your next lunch, dinner or banquet at Lenny Monti's 19th Avenue and Cactus location, and you'll see why the Monti family tradition of good food, generous portions and good prices are a legend in the valley! One of the long-time regulars put it: "Lenny Monti knows how to treat a steak and a customer". Lenny Monti's is open seven days a week Sunday thru Thursday 11AM to 10PM and Friday. Saturday 11AM to 11PM. Weekend reservations are suggested. 

The building was in place until April 2005, and was torn down by early 2006. It is not known if it operated as Lenny Monti's the entire time. In 2016, a discount retail store called Family Dollar was built on part of the site formerly occupied by Lenny Monti's. All that remains of the restaurant is the sign at the corner of the parking lot:

The sign is all that remains of the former Lenny Monti's location in North Phoenix at 19th Ave. and Cactus Road
Do you know more about the history of Monti's second location in North Phoenix? Please leave us a comment below, and thanks for reading!

Private Airport/Airpark Homes in Phoenix

Aug 18, 2018

The dream of every private pilot is being able to walk out their front door and take to the skies. For a lucky few, that dream is a reality. There are a handful of residential communities in the greater Phoenix area with homes built on a private airstrip.

I am intrigued by these airpark neighborhoods where amateur pilots can park their personal aircraft in a hangar that is attached to their house. I find it very cool that you can choose to live in a neighborhood of people who share your same passion and lifestyle centered around aviation. 

Here is a quick rundown of the different communities I was able to find:

Sky Ranch at Carefree
Carefree, AZ 85377

16 homes
Home Values: $700k to $2.5 million
Designation: 18AZ 
Runway 6/24 (paved)

Hangar Haciendas Airpark

Laveen Village, AZ 85339
25 homes
Home Values: $400k to $800k

Designation AZ90
Runway 8/26 (paved)

Stellar Airpark

Chandler, AZ 85226
87 luxury homes
Home Values: $490k to $2.5 million and $1.5 to $8 million

Designation: P19
Runway 17/35 (paved) 

Pegasus Airpark

Queen Creek, AZ 85142
50 luxury homes
Home Values: $600k to $1.2 million

Designation: 5AZ3
Runway 8/26 (paved)

Thunder Ridge Airpark

Morristown, AZ 85342
9 homes
Home Values: $450k to $1.5 million
Designation: AZ28
Runway 17/35 (paved)

Little-Known Cemeteries in Phoenix

May 6, 2018

Like many cultures, Americans have designated special places as the final resting place for our loved ones. I'm talking about cemeteries - the very word may conjure up mental image of trees, grass, and markers in neat, uniform rows.

Unfortunately, not everyone ends up in such peaceful serenity. There are a number of small, little-known cemeteries around the Phoenix area that have come up in my research. I would not call them abandoned cemeteries as there is certainly someone looking after them, but you might not guess that at first glance.

What makes these different from other cemeteries is that they are often very small, tucked away in neighborhoods, and lacking the green grass and weeping willow trees we are accustomed to seeing. They do not have adequate or visible signage, and many of them are historic and not accepting new burials. Some of them are not open to the public. Let's take a look:

Crosscut Cemetery
325 N 47th Pl., Phoenix, AZ 85008

Just 0.83 acres in size, this small cemetery is located in a residential neighborhood near the Old Crosscut Canal. It is a dirt lot surrounded by a chain-link fence, behind a 7-Eleven convenience store.

Crosscut Cemetery - Phoenix, AZ

Twin Buttes County Cemetery

Twin Buttes Cemetery - Tempe, AZ

Originally known as the Maricopa County Cemetery, this cemetery was in use from 1890 to 1952, when it was closed. The cemetery is locked and there is no seen access.

About 7,000 people were interred from 1890 to 1951. It was owned and administered by Maricopa county but more recently was deeded to the City of Phoenix. It has not been maintained recently but the city did construct an iron fence around it to prevent theft of the headstones and driving vehicles over the graves. It is currently administered by the Pioneers' Cemetery Association (PCA).

Cementerio Lindo - Phoenix, AZ

Old Paths Cemetery (Weedville) (Private)
N 72nd Ave and W Cemetery Rd (near 75th Ave and Thunderbird in Peoria)
At just 0.36 acres in size, this is one of the smallest cemeteries on our list. It is private and not accessible to the public. It is located in a neighborhood in the former community of Weedville, a small community founded in 1911 that was later annexed by the City of Peoria.

Old Paths Cemetery - Peoria, AZ

Russian Molokan Cemetery
N 75th Ave and W Maryland Ave, Glendale, AZ 85303
(Between Glendale Ave and Bethany Home Rd)

Russian Molokans were a group of Spiritual Christians that established an agricultural community in Glendale, Arizona in the early 1900s. Today, this 1.1 acre historic cemetery is about all that remains. The grounds are locked and not accessible to the general public. The cemetery is unique in that there is no grass, no trees, nothing growing at all. It is the opposite of what we may imagine a "typical" cemetery looking like.

Russian Molokan Cemetery - Glendale, AZ

Mt. Sinai Jewish Cemetery
24210 N 68th St., Phoenix, AZ 85054

The most unusual thing about this cemetery is its unusual location - hidden behind an electrical substation in the desert of north Scottsdale. The 20.4 acre cemetery is a beautiful final resting ground for members of the Jewish faith, and yet it remains hidden in plain sight. 

Mt. Sinai Cemetery - Phoenix, AZ
Guadalupe Cemetery
4649 S Beck Ave., Tempe, AZ 85282

This historic cemetery for the Town of Guadalupe dates back to the late 1800s and early 1900s. The town's first church was constructed there in 1904, but the land did not officially belong to Guadalupe until 1979. Today it is surrounded by residential homes on all sides.

Guadalupe Cemetery - Tempe, AZ
Do you know about any other obscure or little-known cemeteries in the greater Phoenix area? Please share your stories with us by posting a comment!

North Phoenix Hotels Converting to Senior Living

Apr 7, 2018

I have noticed a trend in the North Phoenix area of hotels converting into senior living facilities.

The first one was the former Embassy Suites at 2577 W. Greenway Road. Built in 1986, this all-suites hotel offered 168 guestrooms where every room was a 2-room suite. The website went offline in 2015, and the 17-acre property began the transformation to its present status as "Park Terrace at Greenway." Prior to its closure, the hotel's ratings took a nosedive, with an average score of 2.0 out of 5 on Yelp with 74 reviews. The new property offers four different floor plans for seniors, ranging from 504 square feet to 1,208 square feet.

The next to go was a 166 room hotel located at 2641 W. Union Hills Dr. It has operated under many names over the years including the Ramada Midtown, Park Plaza Phoenix North, Comfort Inn Phoenix North, and most recently, Plaza Inn & Suites. It is now renovated and operating as "Bridgewater Assisted Living." Like the Embassy Suites, this one had pretty bad reviews as a hotel. The website HotelPlanner records that the property had 2.5 out of 5 stars with 196 reviews prior to its closure.

The most recent North Phoenix hotel to convert to a senior home is the former Country Inn & Suites, located at 20221 N. 19th Ave. The 126 room property was built in 2000 and sits on 5 acres of land. Unlike the other properties, this one had great reviews prior to its closure - 4 out of 5 stars with 441 reviews. A banner on the property announces the new name as Deer Valley Senior Living.

Why are so many hotels making this transition? Allow me to make some educated guesses:
1. With so many newer hotels in the Happy Valley/Norterra area, the supply of hotel rooms in the North Valley is greater than the market demand, causing low occupancy and cutthroat rates.

2. With so many baby boomers retiring, there is an increased demand for senior and assisted living care facilities. Converting a hotel saves on cost versus building a brand-new property from the ground up, and it's also faster.

3. Hotel properties typically include all of the facilities needed for senior care, such as on-site laundry service, meal preparation, and large lobby/conference room areas that can easily be repurposed as activity rooms.

4. Don't quote me on this, but I believe that in Phoenix, the same type of zoning that allows for a hotel also permits multi-unit housing. The properties can quickly be turned around without a re-zoning hearing.

5. North Phoenix has two age-restricted communities already, which are the Friendly Village of Orangewood at 27th Ave and Union Hills and the Sand Dollar Apartments.

Will more North Phoenix hotels convert to senior living in the coming years? If the current trend is any indication, then the answer is likely a "yes."

Remembering the Sundome in Sun City West

Oct 22, 2017

Like many large cities, downtown Phoenix has its share of large stadiums and event centers. Symphony Hall, the Herberger Theater, the Orpheum Theatre, Comerica Theatre, and of course, Chase Field and Talking Stick Resort Arena, which are home to the Arizona Diamondbacks and Phoenix Suns, respectively.

Downtown Phoenix is not the only place in the Valley of the Sun to catch a great concert or performance. As you venture towards West Phoenix and Glendale, there are several big venues including the University of Phoenix Stadium (completed in 2006), Gila River Arena (completed in 2003), and the Ak-Chin Pavilion (opened in 1990).

The Sundome in Sun City West, AZ
But before all of these new facilities existed, the major entertainment venue of the West Valley was the Sundome in Sun City West, AZ. With a seating capacity of 7,000 people, the Sundome was the premier venue for concerts, musical and theatrical performances, and many other events.

The Carpenter's Apprentice
The story of the Sundome really begins in 1928 when a carpenter's apprentice from California named Delbert "Del" Webb moved out to Arizona and started his own construction company. America's involvement in World War II was a catalyst that ignited a building boom in Arizona, and Webb was riding a wave of success with Government contracts. His company built the Poston War Relocation Center near Parker, AZ as well as Thunderbird Field No. 1 (today Thunderbird School of Global Management), Luke Air Force Base, and Pinal Air Park near Tucson, AZ.

Fred Kuentz, Del Webb, and John Meeker
Photo (c) Del Webb Sun Cities Museum
 After the war, the Del E. Webb Company branched out and was the primary contractor for the Flamingo Casino and Sahara Casino in Las Vegas. They continued to build heavily throughout Arizona, working on projects such as shopping centers and hospitals.

Pueblo Gardens - The Prelude to Sun City
In 1948, Del Webb was awarded a contract that would be a significant turning point for his company. The project was a 700 home development in Tucson called Pueblo Gardens, which included a 100,000 square-foot shopping center called Pueblo Plaza.

The homes were constructed simply with wooden frames on concrete foundations, but Webb and project manager A. Quincy Jones found ways to make them unique. A total of six floorplans were designed, but by building the homes at different angles on the lots and varying the setbacks from the street, the neighborhood did not appear to be a "cookie cutter" subdivision. Models included a one-bedroom, one-bath for $4,975, a two-bed, one-bath home for $5,975, and a three-bed, one-bath for $7,975.

Families lined up to view new models.
Photo by Peter Stackpole for LIFE Magazine, 1948
The $20 million Pueblo Gardens project was a success, with hundreds of families lining up around the block to view the new model homes. Though the project had an option to build out to 3,000 homes, only 750 homes were built in Tucson. Media attention from Life Magazine and Arizona Highways brought national attention to the project, and Webb must have certainly recognized a market opportunity in building master-planned neighborhoods that integrated low-cost homes with schools, parks, and shopping centers. It is likely that Pueblo Gardens was the inspiration for a new retirement community in Arizona.

Sun City Rises
In 1959, Del Webb began constructing the first of what would later become many master-planned retirement communities. The company purchased 20,000 acres of cotton fields and transformed the land into Sun City, an age-restricted development for those age 55 and up who wanted an "active lifestyle" retirement. Sun City opened on January 1, 1960 and received a cover story in Time Magazine.

The homes were built using many of the same principles that had made Pueblo Gardens successful, and surrounding them with golf courses, community centers, and recreation facilities. One of the key features of Sun City was the Sun Bowl, an open-air amphitheater for hosting concerts and other public performances.

The Sun Bowl
The idea came from John Meeker, who was the president of DEVCO, Del Webb's Development Company. In a 1996 interview with the Del Webb Sun Cities Museum, Meeker recalled that in about 1967 or 1968, he was on an airplane flight and read a Time magazine article about a large housing project in south San Francisco that had built an outdoor amphitheater as a marketing tool. Meeker liked the idea, and it wasn't long until Sun City had its own amphitheater - the Sun Bowl.

The Sun Bowl Amphitheatre in Sun City, AZ
Residents would bring their own folding chairs to the terraced lawn and watch performances in the wintertime. Meeker recalled that Liberace was the first act to play at the Sun Dome, and Lawrence Welk and many others were booked for residents on a weekly basis. He stated that the Sun Dome worked as a marketing tool, and sales of new homes jumped from 1,100 houses per year to 1,800 houses per year.

However, the Sun Bowl was not without its problems. As Meeker stated in the interview, the unpleasant odor of cattle from the nearby Spur Feedlots and the constant flyovers of jet aircraft from Luke Air Force Base were sources of frustration for the residents of Sun City, and affected the enjoyment of these outdoor performances.

Sun City West - Home of the Sundome
By 1978 Sun City was fully built out, but Webb had no intentions of stopping there. The company began work on a new project 2 miles to the west, appropriately named Sun City West.

Aerial image showing construction of Sun City West on April 3, 1980
The Sundome is visible as indicated by the white arrow
Photo (c) Del Webb Sun Cities Museum
Like the original development, Sun City West would feature a mix of retail, community, and residential spaces easily accessible to residents. However, the plans for entertainment with Sun City West were scaled up considerably.

Instead of another outdoor amphitheater, the Del Webb Company wanted to build a large indoor theater to draw larger acts and performances. They had looked into a New York based architect who had built inflated dome structures in Iowa and Florida as a possible low-cost alternative to traditional construction methods. However, Meeker recalls that the interior noise of those structures was "tremendous." Still, the developers liked the idea of the dome-shaped structure, and hence the name Sundome was chosen.

The new Sundome was several orders of magnitude larger than the old Sun Bowl. With a roof four stories tall and a seating capacity of 7,000 people, the Sundome would be a major selling point for Sun City West. Construction on the new 108,000 square-foot Sundome began in 1978 and lasted more than a year. Whereas the Sun Bowl cost just over $100,000 to build, the Sundome was constructed at a cost of $8.6 million dollars.

Opening Night at the Sundome 9/13/1980
Photo (c) Del Webb Sun Cities Museum

When completed in September of 1980, the Sundome was the largest single-floor theater in the nation. It featured plush, comfortable seats that were usually only found in higher-priced sections of major theaters. Things were off to a great start with Lawrence Welk and his orchestra playing the venue's inaugural show.

New Owners, New Opportunities
While the Del Webb Company had built the Sundome, the company had no interest in operating the venue going forward. They noticed that Arizona State University had a proven record of managing Gammage Auditorium, and offered it to ASU for $1. ASU assumed ownership of the Sundome in 1984. At the time, the Sundome was operating with an average annual deficit of $200,000 - meaning the facility was not making any money.

Arizona State University operated the Sundome for many years.
This University Seal is located in the sidewalk on the site of the former Sundome.
 ASU continued to operate the Sundome for the next decade, during which time the venue hosted acts including Bob Hope, George Burns, Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, Walter Cronkite, John Denver, Andy Williams, Willie Nelson, Red Skelton, and countless more big names.

Refit and Financial Troubles
By 1995, the 15-year old theater was in need of a refit. Upgrades to the stage, dressing rooms, and adding additional restrooms were estimated to cost $5 million dollars. It took almost 4 years to raise the necessary money, but donations and gifts of $5.4 million had been raised by December 1999.

According to the Sun Cities Historical Society, professional theater design companies were brought in to review the planned upgrades. Cost estimates quickly spiraled out of control to $20 million dollars. Some of the desired upgrades were cut back, but the lowest bid still clocked in at $13.5 million dollars - far more than the Sundome could afford. The project to refit the theater was officially cancelled.

West Entrance to the Sundome
Google Street View - June 2011
As operating costs continued to outweigh the annual income, ownership of the Sundome was transferred from ASU to Maricopa County and took on the new name of "Maricopa County Events Center." They continued to book shows, but audiences weren't showing up in big numbers like they used to. Many shows were performed with less than half of the seats filled. An annual variety show and high school graduation ceremonies were some of the larger events held at the Sundome during this time.

Closure and Sale
In 2009, ownership was transferred from the County back to Arizona State University. Not long after that, the Sundome closed permanently. The seats and lighting equipment were removed, along with the 75 foot by 6 foot mural from artist Alfred Kabica that hung in the lobby for 29 years.

The Lobby area of the Sundome featured a 75 foot-long mural by Alfred Kabica.
Photo (c) Arizona Republic
The Sundome sat there, empty and fenced off until 2012, when Scottsdale-based developer Brown Grace 6 Investments LLC bought the 16-acre site from ASU for $2 million. In May of 2013, Maricopa County approved a demolition permit for the facility. By June, local news stations reported that the Sundome would be replaced by a 94,113 square foot Fry's Grocery Store.

Aerial image sequence showing Sundome in 2012,
demolition in 2013, new Fry's in 2014

Demolition of the Sundome commenced in August 2013 and was completed by September. The site was cleared and construction on the new grocery store and shopping center was underway.

Fry's Preserves the Sundome's Legacy
When the new Fry's Grocery Store opened on August 29, 2014, residents who fondly remembered the Sundome were delighted to see that the new structure incorporated elements of the Sundome into the design. The decorative iron gates from the Sundome were saved and were added to the exterior walls as design elements. The original light fixtures could not be saved, but replica ones were created for the front of the store. Mosaic tile adorns the entryway, as it did with the original building. A smaller scale replica of the original fountain was also built near the store's entrance.

The new Fry's store preserved the arched gates and mosaic tile pattern from the original stadium.
The lighting fixtures are replicas.

Small Plaque dedicated to the Sundome
This fountain is a smaller replica of the original Sundome fountain

Throughout its 33 year history, the Sundome was one of the most iconic and memorable venues of Phoenix's West Valley. Though its history was a turbulent one, it was a source of entertainment and community events for nearly three decades. While it is sad that the Sundome could not be saved, there is some consolation that the memory of this place is not lost forever. Personally, I am very pleased that Fry's recognized the importance of the Sundome to Sun City West and its history and I appreciate the lengths they went to incorporate details of the former structure into the new grocery store.

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