In Arizona, a Modern Cube and Tumbledown 1930s Shack Make an Unlikely Couple

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By Candace Jackson
A local architectural designer bridges the gap between new construction and historic preservation in a central Phoenix neighborhood.

The Coronado district near downtown Phoenix has an eclectic mix of home styles, ranging from 1930s Craftsman bungalows to modest brick colonials to small midcentury ranches. Lately, a growing number of glass-and-stucco minimalist newcomers  are joining the mix, including several designed by Joel Contreras, a local real estate agent turned architectural designer whose family has lived in the area for five generations.

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In 2015, Contreras came across a long-vacant Depression-era Coronado home that seemed like an obvious candidate for the teardown treatment. Tiny and set awkwardly far back on a rundown lot, the shack’s crumbling exterior walls of concrete block, stone, and wood were sinking under a crooked roof. Inside, things didn’t look much better. The 1970s-era dark wood paneling on the walls gave the already-small rooms a claustrophobic feel.

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But Contreras says he saw something worth saving, and approached the local historic preservation board with an unusual proposal: he’d design a brand-new structure for the front of the property while renovating the historic one behind it. "Anyone else would have torn it down," he says. "But I wanted a window into the past while giving it a modern update."

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The board didn’t immediately share his vision. The plan was met with pushback because it didn’t neatly fit the preservation mandate of either building an obviously new home or preserving something old. At a special planning hearing, Contreras made the argument that this type of old and new mash-up would help the up-and-coming Coronado district stand out from higher-end historic neighborhoods nearby, most of which have drawn a strict line between the two approaches.

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He also argued it could help ease neighborhood concerns about the changing local landscape. "If people think the neighborhood is going to be overtaken by modern structures they get fearful," he says. "But if they feel like the new additions are there to complement the history, it puts people at ease."

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Contreras says the board took the unusual step of asking for more time to think over their decision, but returned four days later to approve his plan.

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Shortly thereafter, a young couple purchasing their first home together— Sarah and Andrew Smith, a nurse and a web designer, respectively—signed on to buy the home while it was still in development. They said they were drawn to Contreras’s general enthusiasm and his vision for the property.

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Completed in June 2017, with support from general contractors WeBuild PHX, the home now has a total of 2,470 square feet, spread across two separate volumes with a courtyard in between. Facing the street, the 1,100-square-foot white cube-like addition holds an open living room and kitchen with copper bubble lights, walnut cabinets, and white waterfall quartz countertops.

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A long hallway leads to the older section of the home, where there’s a second living room with a vaulted ceiling, fireplace, and exposed brick walls. With 1,370 square feet, there are also three bedrooms and two baths

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Exposed ducts, painted dark gray, nod to the stripped-down feel of the newer part of the home. Contreras pulled up the original Douglas fir floors and sanded them down before relaying them. (About 30 percent of the original flooring didn’t survive the rehab process, so concrete floors round out the rest of the space, matching the front house.)

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The courtyard between the two structures offers the most obvious glimpse into the home’s past: that concrete and stone wall that was once an eyesore has been sandblasted down for a more uniform look, giving it the feel of an intentionally preserved ruin. 

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 "I look at something like this and think it’s just hopeless," says Sarah, 27, scrolling through pre-renovation photos of the home on her husband’s computer. "Joel looked at it and saw something amazing." 

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