Downtowns are the heart of any American town. They can either be vibrant and alive, or boarded up and dead. Living in Shawano, I’ve seen how the downtown area has struggled from falling into the latter category.
Today, I reacquainted myself with downtown Prescott as part of my Arizona holiday, and I was floored not only by how much had changed, but also by how much seemed the same. The last time I had spent any significant time in Prescott was 2003. It was that year that I moved up by Lake Powell on the Arizona-Utah border, and I only came back to visit family on occasion, so I didn’t know about all the changes.
Downtown Prescott has the historic county courthouse as its centerpiece. Prescott is known for being the first official territorial capital for Arizona in the 1860s. The plaza around the courthouse regularly hosts festivals during the summer months. It is also the site for the annual Christmas lighting. Once upon a time, it was mainly the courthouse that was lit during the holiday season with a touching Christmas scene in a gazebo closed off only for the holidays, but nowadays, several trees help to light the courthouse even brighter. When I was in college, the tall trees help to provide a comfortable rest spot as I was walking to and from school. On the north side of the courthouse, there is a timeline of Arizona history for visitors to check out.
Another fun feature of the courthouse is the fountain, where I remember coming with my grandmother many times and tossing pennies in. The fountain is covered up during the winter months for obvious reasons, but one sure sign that warmer weather was here to stay was when the fountain started up again in April.
A key part of Prescott’s history is Whiskey Row. It gives new meaning to bar hopping, with multiple bars co-existing in a city block west of the courthouse. The row was swept up in a great fire in 1900, but just like the legendary phoenix, the bars rose from the ashes to rebuild. The Bird Cage Saloon was consumed by fire in 2012, and I remember reading the news about the fire while in Wisconsin and wondering if history was going to repeat itself. Fortunately, that didn’t happen, and I saw the old sign on a new building and felt a sense of relief that a piece of Prescott culture was able to come back once again.
Today, the bars of Whiskey Row are woven between art and antique shops and capped at one end by the historic St. Michael. Some of the bars that existed when I was kid, like the Palace and Matt’s Saloon, still exist today, but there are some new faces like the Whiskey Row Pub that keep things interesting and new. Probably if I had the time and money, I’d go bar hopping. Well, maybe another time.
Other memories from my childhood revolve around the times I spent the night with my grandmother, and we’d go out to eat at either Mario’s Pizzeria or Kendall’s Ice Cream (which also served burgers). It was always a highlight either walking on the discarded peanuts at the pizzeria or getting a mint chocolate chip cone at the ice cream parlor. I was glad to see the two places are still alive and kicking, but I’m not sure about the names—Bill’s Pizza and Marion’s Burgers and Ice Cream.
For a while, the Elks Theatre just east of the courthouse was dark. The theater was empty and neglected for a number of years, but a major $2 million restoration project occurred in 2002 to bring it back to life. The Elks Theatre, also known to some in the community as the Elks Opera House, was built in 1905 and started as a live entertainment venue. When cinema really started to get popular, the theater was the place to be to see the latest silent films. I remember going on class trips in the 1980s to see live performances. Today, the place is hopping with a number of activities. I might look at possibly attending something before I leave, if time permits.
Another historic treasure of downtown Prescott is the Hassayampa Inn. The building was constructed in 1927 and still boasts a brick motif in a region where brick isn’t as popular these days. A number of events take place here yearly, and the inn is on the National Historic Register. The building adds a touch of historic southwest romanticism, like it’d be the scene for a clandestine rendezvous or perhaps event a murder. I remember growing up and thinking that was a place where only rich people frequent. I’ve only been inside the Hassayampa one time, and I was an adult by then. I can’t remember what the event was, although I’m thinking a wedding.
Another beloved chestnut of the downtown Prescott area is the Prescott Center for the Arts, although when I grew up and went to college, the organization was known as the Prescott Fine Arts Association. Once a church built in the 19th century, the theater today performs more than a dozen shows per year. I was lucky enough to be part of a couple of them when I was going to Yavapai College. I played a minor part in “Dial M for Murder” and also got to do background moans when the theater did “The Haunting of Hill House.” There are a few pieces of the original church, including the beautiful stained glass windows, but it’s safe to say that it would be sacrilegious to miss a show at this place.
Cortez Street has undergone the biggest metamorphosis since I last spent significant time in the downtown area. Most of the buildings were a sandstone color to blend in with the desert. That doesn’t work for me, though. I like buildings that are alive with color, so that’s why I was very excited to see a couple of buildings painted different colors in the downtown corridor.
One was this lavender-purple combo that featured several shops, including an antique store, a barber shop and a business called Mid-Century Madness. Next to it is the Raven Cafe, owned by the same guy who started up an independent bookstore on the same street three years ago. I plan to go into the bookstore and check it out while I’m here, and that’ll probably be a separate post.
Another pleasant sight was 129½ Cortez St. In another lifetime, when I drove taxicab for about a year, that was one of the less desirable places to pick up fares. Now, there’s a fun looking restaurant that serves Italian food.
It’s getting late, so I’ll end this post with a chuckle. While on Cortez Street, I found a plaque on one of the buildings that said, “On this site in 1897 nothing happened.” Just goes to show Prescott can have a sense of humor.