May 2010

History foreclosed

By David Feela

I have half a mind to say nothing about the closure of 13 Arizona state parks, but then the other half of my mind insists that something be said about boarding up the old Riordan Mansion in Flagstaff. No other mansion in America is quite like it, a sprawling 13,000-square-foot pioneer living space where two families huddled, composed of 40 rooms, designed and built in 1904 in the Arts and Crafts style of architecture, and filled with Gustav Stickley furniture which was new when it arrived, as well as all the amenities that should have made a frontier town like Flagstaff blush.

The house was a gift in 1978 from the second generation of Riordans to the city and it has since 1983 been managed by the Arizona State Parks system to stand as an historic reminder of what wealth can build in the middle of a burgeoning frontier town.

The reason I'm saying twice as much as I intended about the mansion is that it's really two mansions — a duplex really — nearly identical structures joined by a 1,000- foot common room referred to as “the cabin.” Touring it nearly a decade ago, I was fascinated by the image of the mansion as a Freudian blueprint for the two hemispheres of one brain, albeit constructed out of ponderosa pine. You see, the two halfbrothers of Dennis Riordan came out West to make their fortunes by managing the older brother's lumber business and they just happened to marry the two Metz sisters. These couples built and then set up house in complementary quarters, and during their stay did much for the Flagstaff community when they weren't thinking about lumber all day or sawing logs in their sleep.

It's really something to see, this mansion of rustic logs and volcanic stone. Or rather, it was something to see, furnished and restored with all the innovative paraphernalia of the era, like hot and cold running water, electric heat, and a refrigerator. There was even an early model of a telephone.

Now it's closed. Mice are the only touring mammals, because the place was axed one more time, on Feb. 22, due to budget shortfalls. The oversight board voted unanimously to cut its funding and nobody shouted “timber.” It's one more fatality in this ailing economy, because here's the thing: the admission price to see our heritage is skyrocketing. Arizona State Parks increased every park fee, in several cases by as much as 100 percent. They probably consider it justified, but if the parks are suffering financially, what makes them think the people who visit their parks are doing any better?

The former $6 admission to tour the Riordian was fantastic, especially when compared to the overpriced tour packages required by other historic homes like Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling Water House ($18), the William Randolph Hearst Castle ($24), and even a national treasure like Thomas Jefferson's Monticello ($31). Knock knock. Who's there? Nobody.

But there's one more tragedy in the making. Closing down outdoor recreational areas like Red Rocks State Park near Sedona or Tonto Natural Bridge near Payson is not the same as shuttering a hundred- year-old mansion. The living trees and shrubs can nurture themselves without human interference, and they may even be better for a lack of tourist traffic, but the logs, roofs, walls, and floors of the Riordan Mansion can't simply be dusted and left to fend for themselves. Profit should not have been the only priority in deciding to close the Riordian Mansion.

The integrity of such an old log building requires a level of vigilance that can't be ignored and leaving it open would have gone a long way in sustaining and maintaining its delicate history. My only consolation in this matter is that if the closure becomes permanent, the mansion legally reverts to the family. And with a little luck, maybe the Riordian ancestors will turn half of it into a water park and the other half into a shopping mall. We don't have enough of those now, do we?

David Feela writes from rural Montezuma County, Colo.