Visitors center takes shape at seldom-seen Mesa Grande ruins - East Valley Tribune: Mesa

Visitors center takes shape at seldom-seen Mesa Grande ruins

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Posted: Thursday, July 28, 2011 4:35 pm | Updated: 5:02 pm, Fri Jul 29, 2011.

As Mesa’s pioneers scouted their new home, one of their most striking discoveries was a mound larger than a football field that was the cultural center of the ancient Hohokam.

The imposing 27-foot-tall adobe ruins of Mesa Grande remain to this day, yet development and a security wall have made the important site virtually invisible to the Valley’s current inhabitants.

Now Mesa is planning to boost the site’s profile by opening a visitors center next year that will improve public access. The building will allow the site to accept visitors on a regular basis, following years of it being open only one day a year.

The city has pushed to develop the ruins as far back as 1927, with a parade on Main Street for the cause. It’s taken decades to finally get a 1,200-square-foot center that’s scheduled to open in February 2012.

Visitors will pass through the building before strolling on a path that circles the mound, said Jerry Howard, the curator of anthropology for the Arizona Museum of Natural History.

“Mesa Grande is really marvelous because it is kind of a small, undeveloped place in the middle of the city,” Howard said. “It really gives a sense to a visitor that they’re in an undiscovered or unaltered place. It’s a place where we can really give a sense of discovery and adventure.”

The mound was constructed from about 1100 to 1400 and supported a one-story or two-story structure. The ruins are behind a tall fence west of a multi-story Banner Health facility on Country Club Drive, near Brown Road.

Even today, Howard said Mesa natives who live only blocks away are hearing about it for the first time.

Mesa had once envisioned a 20,000-square-foot, multimillion-dollar center, but the high cost halted plans. Museum officials then figured their downtown Mesa facility housed plenty of Hohokam artifacts and the Internet allows visitors to access additional information. That led to a minimalist plan for the center, said Tom Wilson, director of the Arizona Museum of Natural History.

“We really think that you’re there to see the site and not to see the visitors center,” Wilson said.

The $250,000 center will be funded through grants. It will open as part of the Arizona centennial celebrations held around the state next year. The museum initially plans to open it 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays from Oct. 1 to May 15.

At the ruins, nine small markers will show how the site has been viewed by archeologists, Native Americans and early explorers. An audio tour is being developed. Mesa Grande will differ from most historic sites by having minimal signage, Howard said.

“In the Southwest, most of them are pretty traditional interpretive approaches with signs and big old brass plaques,” he said. “What we decided to do was try something different.”

Also, the Pueblo Grande Museum in east Phoenix has an extensive visitors center next to the only other large mound the Hohokam built in the Valley. The two sites were centers of power in part because they were at the headwaters of the most sophisticated prehistoric canals built in North America. The two sites controlled about half the Valley’s canals.

The Hohokam built up to 40 small mounds in the Valley, which they inhabited from about 1 A.D. to 1450. Development has destroyed nearly all of them.

Museum officials believe opening Mesa Grande will introduce children and adults to Hohokam engineering accomplishments and sophisticated culture. Howard said residents want to explore the 6-acre site.

“Our last couple open houses have attracted over 800 people in four hours, so there’s a tremendous interest in that site,” he said.

• Contact writer: (480) 898-6548 or ggroff@evtrib.com

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