In 1928, Thomas Mackenzie purchased 47 acres of lettuce fields north of the city limits for $20,000, according to Phoenix historians. He named the planned subdivision “Woodlea,” for the abundant trees on the acreage. Mackenzie Drive in the district is named for him.
Building began with a bang, then stalled in the 1930’s because of the Depression. Most of the homes were purchased in the 1940’s, and thus the historic district is classified as an FHA-Influenced Subdivision on the National Register of Historic Places.
Period Revival and Early Transitional Ranch-style homes dominate the mid-century district. The overall neighborhood reflects the trends and patterns of urban development from the late 1920’s and throughout the 1940’s.
The Woodlea Historic District is a medium-sized, mid-century neighborhood in central Phoenix that was platted in 1928 but largely developed in the 1940’s. The Woodlea Historic District was developed in two principal building campaigns. The first occurred shortly after the subdivision plat was filed, in 1929. That year, eight houses were erected. The onset of the Great Depression brought construction to a standstill by 1935 when developer Thomas Mackenzie was forced to foreclose on the remaining lots. After several years of inactivity, Woodlea’s promoters revived their efforts to complete the subdivision in the late 1930’s when FHA loan guarantees were made available to potential home buyers. With an improved economy and federally insured mortgages, building began anew in Woodlea. Between 1939 and 1942, scores of houses filled lots in the subdivision. Although war restrictions generally prohibited “nonessential” construction during World War II, a number of houses were approved for the Woodlea subdivision, likely due to housing shortages for defense workers. As building continued at a rapid pace in the postwar period, the subdivision was almost entirely built out by 1955; only eight houses were constructed after that time.
The Woodlea Historic District generally follows the original subdivision lines and is bounded by 9th Avenue to the east, 15th Avenue to the west, Glenrosa Avenue (formerly Neelia Drive) to the north, and the alley between Mackenzie Drive and Monterosa Street on the south. The district lies a few blocks south of the Grand Canal, which likely provided water for the original farm operation, and just a short distance from the busy 7th Avenue, commercial strip.
Early History of Woodlea Historic District
The Woodlea subdivision was carved from one of many farm tracts that surrounded Phoenix in the early 20th century. As the city grew beyond its original boundaries, irrigated farms gave way to new subdivisions, especially during the building boom that occurred in the 1920s and after World War II. The property changed hands several times between 1900 and 1928, passing from one absentee owner to another (Frank, 1997). They likely bought the land as a speculative venture, gambling that Phoenix would one day grow in their direction and increase their property values. Meanwhile, they leased their acreage to Phoenix area farmers who irrigated their fields with water from the nearby Grand Canal. Reportedly, the Woodlea tract was planted in truck crops such as lettuce, rather than citrus, and possibly used for dairy farming (Frank, 1997).
Phoenix experienced phenomenal growth in the early part of the century, adding subdivisions around the city – principally to the north – at an impressive rate. Signs looked good for continued growth and Thomas Mackenzie, a miner from Ray, Arizona, seized the opportunity to capitalize on the city’s rapid development. On November 9, 1928, Mackenzie purchased a 47-acre tract of farmland north of Indian School Road and west of 7th Avenue, from California resident Sophoria E. Haeberlin. The land in Section 19 (Township 2 North, Range 3 East) had, indeed, risen in value over the years. When it sold in 1900, the tract brought a mere $200, but in 1928, Mackenzie paid Mrs. Haeberlin $20,000 in gold coin for the same property (Frank 1997; deed records in file).
Mackenzie quickly subdivided his rectangular plot as “Woodlea”, for the trees that surrounded the tract. He created twelve blocks with 190 building lots, most of which addressed three major east-west streets that ran through the tract – Mackenzie, Heatherbrae and Neelia (now Glenrosa) – between N. 7th and N. 15th Avenues. Like most suburban developers of the period, Mackenzie provided basic amenities; he dedicated streets and alleys for public use and granted easements for utilities. Because the subdivision lay at a distance from the city and its services, he dug a deep well to provide water to the subdivision. The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors approved the Woodlea plat on December 30, 1928 and it was filed at the County Recorder’s office on January 2, 1929 (Woodlea Subdivision Map, Book 20: 20).
Mackenzie did not, himself, build or contract the construction of houses in his subdivision. Instead, he sold lots to realtors and builders who were then responsible for the improvements. Just over a month after filing his plat, Mackenzie sold his first two lots to husband and wife, J. A. and Anna Holmes, who were described in deed records as “builders and contractors”. The couple purchased two lots for building purposes. Lot 3, Block 20, now 4210 N. 9th Avenue, sold for $600.00, and Lot 4, Block 10, now 907 W. Mackenzie Drive, sold for $450.00 (Frank, 1997; deed records in file). It is not known whether Mr. and Mrs. Holmes meant to sell both houses or live in one and sell the other, but deed records clearly state their intention to construct two houses. This initial lot sale was typical of the district’s development which included owner-builders, speculative builders, and small investors.
After platting his subdivision and selling the first two lots, Mackenzie entered into an agreement with Lister Realty Company to broker the remaining parcels. (Mackenzie may have sold the subdivision to Lister Realty with a contingency clause. During the Great Depression, Lister defaulted on the agreement and Mackenzie resumed control of the property.) J. Lister held a grand opening for the Woodlea subdivision on March 17, 1929 (The Arizona Republican, March 17, 1929). To attract a crowd, they offered a free lunch and widely touted Woodlea’s amenities including “wide, well graveled streets,” electricity, and a nearby church and school. Lister’s ads for the subdivision emphasized that there were no city taxes. Woodlea’s most noteworthy feature, according to most early advertisements, was its pure, soft water, described as “the best in the city” and “pumped from a depth of 347 feet by a 7.5 horsepower motor”. Prospective home buyers were urged to bring canteens to sample the water. In a newspaper article covering the grand opening, Lister declared “The results of the first day were exceedingly gratifying” (The Arizona Republican, March 24, 1929).
Early newspaper articles and advertisements offer a few clues about Mackenzie and Lister’s intended buyers. They sought to attract both speculative builders and prospective home owners to build single-family houses throughout the subdivision. Articles and advertisements in the real estate section of The Arizona Republican appealed to builders by hinting at Woodlea’s investment potential. They emphasized its low-priced lots and location near exclusive subdivisions and promised a “choice location at a small cost in the path of the Salt River Valley’s greatest development!” (The Arizona Republican, March 24, 1929). Advertisements were also aimed at families wishing to build a home of their own. One portrayed a child’s eagerness to see Woodlea. It read,
“Say Dad” “You have read the news, let’s drive out Seventh Avenue north of Indian School Road and see WOODLEA the new subdivision all the neighbors are talking about. We will take our canteen and sample the GOOD SOFT WATER . . . ” (The Arizona Republican, March 24, 1929).
Deed restrictions limited the addition to single-family residences and clearly stated that Woodlea was intended to be a “choice and restrictive residence addition” that prohibited “tents or tent houses,” garages, and outdoor toilets. In addition, only those of “the Caucasian race” were allowed to occupy, lease or own property in the subdivision (Deed record in file, December 31, 1935). It was a biased, but typical, subdivision restriction for that period.
Although the subdivision was then far north of the city limits, initial lot sales were brisk and in October, 1929, Lister announced that development in Woodlea “far exceeded the company’s expectations”. Eight houses were completed between March and October, 1929 and others were on the drawing board when J. Lister predicted that Woodlea would be “one of the fastest developments completed in the history of city real estate circles” if progress continued at that pace. He anticipated building 40 houses by the end of the year (Weight, 1998). Unfortunately, even as Lister made his remarks, the stock market tumbled, precipitating the onset of the Great Depression.
The Great Depression and the FHA
The failed economy had an almost immediate and dramatic impact on the Woodlea development. The neighborhood saw few sales in the early 1930s; only one house sold in 1930, three in 1931, and none in 1933 or 1934. By the end of 1935, Mackenzie was forced to foreclose on the remaining lots. He paid the Phoenix Title and Trust Company the sum of ten dollars for the return of his property (Deed Records in file, December 31, 1935). Sales remained dismal through 1937; only three houses sold in the three-year period from 1935 through 1937. In total, only fifteen houses in the 190-lot subdivision had been sold by the end of 1937.
Assistance came in the form of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), which helped would-be home owners obtain mortgages with federally-insured loans. Building in Woodlea resumed at a modest rate with five new houses completed in 1938 and another five in 1939. Angle Realty heavily promoted Woodlea in newspaper advertisements in the late 1930s. The company typically offered “ample” five room houses built of painted brick or frame and stucco, with steel casement windows and stained concrete floors. Added features included garages and Venetian blinds. The company further enticed prospective buyers with FHA loans and costs as much as 35% lower than in comparable neighborhoods (The Arizona Republic, March 12, 1939).
World War II and the Postwar Era
Residential construction in Woodlea accelerated on the eve of World War II, as defense industries led to a housing shortage in Phoenix. Some houses were built by independent contractors hired by owners but many others were constructed as speculative ventures by builders who purchased multiple lots. Andy Womack, one of Woodlea’s prominent builders, constructed eight houses in the neighborhood, all of brick with either wood or steel frame windows. His two and three bedroom floor plans were used as templates for many houses throughout Phoenix. George Funk and William Bezy were among other active builders in Woodlea during the resurgence of the 1940s (The Arizona Republic, real estate ads, various).
While the war effort curtailed housing starts in many parts of the country, construction in Phoenix continued to grow during World War II, as the area’s many defense industries warranted workers’ housing. Woodlea benefited from the housing shortage and the years immediately preceding the war were the most successful for the subdivision. Twenty-eight houses were completed in 1940, with another 31 finished in 1941. Even in the depths of the war, construction continued in Woodlea where 10 houses were built in 1942, three in 1942, and 14 in 1944.
The Arizona Republic carried many advertisements for the Woodlea subdivision in the early 1940s. Homes in Woodlea were described as the “most modern and up-to-the-minute architecture” with “easy FHA terms available.” Woodlea remained outside the city limits and builder William Bezy attracted buyers by advertising Woodlea’s “city conveniences [with] no city taxes.” He also noted that he would “accept [a] late model coupe or pickup as down payment” from prospective buyers for his newly built house at 916 W. Mackenzie Dr. (The Arizona Republic, February 1941). According to Angle Realty’s ads, the firm had sold thirty houses in six months (The Arizona Republic, April 1941). After lackluster sales in the mid-1930s, construction in Woodlea boomed during the 1940s. By 1955, the subdivision was almost entirely built out; only eight houses were built thereafter.
Historical Information Courtesy of:
City of Phoenix Historic Preservation Office and Arizona Republic archives
200 West Washington Street
Phoenix, Arizona 85003