Gem of the Desert: Scottsdale: The Arizona resort town is loaded with history, striking architecture and plenty of great shopping.

January 07, 1996|By Susanne Hopkins | Susanne Hopkins,LOS ANGELES DAILY NEWS

It was serendipity.

There I stood, chatting with Wally, the volunteer in the Scottsdale Historical Museum (also known as the Little Red Schoolhouse), when Patricia Seitters Meyers wandered in with an armload of books -- her books. On Scottsdale.

Ms. Meyers, an arts and entertainment writer for the Arizona Republic, wrote what could be considered the definitive history (aptly called "Scottsdale -- Jewel in the Desert") of this long ribbon of a town that bumps up to Phoenix in the west, Mesa to the east, Tempe to the south and desert to the north.

It's a resort town now, filled with five-star resorts, fabulous golf courses and ritzy shops where, for the mere price of a Ford Thunderbird, you can buy a coffee table. But once, said Ms. Meyers, it was an agricultural town, citrus and cotton being the major crops.

"It was almost called Orangedale, or it could have been called Utleyville after the developer," Ms. Meyers said. In which case, she added, "I don't think it would have become a resort town."

Instead, it was named after a U.S. Army chaplain named Winfield Scott, from whose vision in 1888 Scottsdale sprang.

In its early days, it was said to draw people with "busted health, busted wealth or busted reputation," Ms. Meyers said, chuckling. Now, it draws people who bask in "its climate, quality of life and the aesthetics of the mountains and the desert."

People are drawn to some of Scottsdale's more hidden delights, as well:

* Old Town: In the center of what Ms. Meyers calls a "swank and sunny city" of 153,000, there's the nucleus of the town. Here, you'll find Scottsdale's oldest buildings and an Old West ambience.

On a leisurely 45-minute walking tour (you can pick up a map at the Chamber of Commerce, located on the Scottsdale Mall in the center of Old Town), I basked in history. A museum on the mall offered glimpses of the past via old photos. And, map in hand, I followed the trail to the town's old buildings, among them Cavaliere's Black Smith Shop, the oldest business in the area.

George Cavaliere III still works much as his grandfather did in 1909 when the shop was founded. The senior Cavaliere fixed plows and made wagons and buggies but also did some ornamental work.

"We do a lot of the same stuff as he did," the younger Cavaliere said. "Brackets to hold bells, handmade furniture." He looked around the place crowded with wrought-iron work and smoke from the fire smoldering in the fire pit. "Not too many people do this today," he said.

Old Town also houses City Hall, the library and the Scottsdale Center for the Arts.

* Taliesin West: Snuggled in the foothills of the McDowell Mountains, this complex of structures is where architect Frank Lloyd Wright lived, worked and taught from 1937 until his death in 1959. Disciples still live (in tent structures of their own design) and study here. There is a cult-like atmosphere about the place. ("Someone needs to deprogram these people," wrote a visitor from Maryland in the guest book.)

But the guided one-hour tours, which take you into only a few of the buildings, highlight Wright's use of elements of the desert: the rubble masonry, for example, which mirrors the clusters of rocks found throughout the Southwest, and his favorite orange-red color found in the desert earth and rocks. Some of Wright's eccentricities are also noted, such as his penchant for low doorways and hidden front doors.

In addition to the one-hour tours, there are also behind-the-scenes tours lasting three hours, and guided, 90-minute desert walks. Taliesin West is at 108th Street at Cactus Road. Hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for students and seniors, $3 for children ages 4 to 12. Tours are every hour. Behind-the-scenes tours ($25) are at 9 a.m. Thursdays from October through May, and, from January through May, at 9 a.m. Tuesdays as well. Desert walks ($12) take place at 11:30 a.m. and 2:15 p.m. Monday through Saturday from November through April. For more information, call (602) 860-8810.

* Buffalo Museum of America: Tucked behind the Dairy Queen on Scottsdale Road is a tribute to the American buffalo. "I love the animal, and I want to explain and teach the people how we used to have 60 million buffalo and, in 1906, we were down to 83," said Gemmie E. Baker, the museum's founder. "Now, we're growing back. We have about 235,000 now."

His collection is meticulously and artfully presented in the two-story museum. There are life-size fake buffalo and a prop buffalo from the film "Dances With Wolves." Against a vivid mural of Buffalo Bill (Col. William F. Cody) Mr. Baker displays Buffalo Bill's Sharps rifle. There is an extensive collection of things buffalo -- fine art, belt buckles, banks, china, figurines, stamps, even a German cuckoo clock. Mr. Baker also shows a short film on the buffalo and the Plains Indian culture.

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