Mesa's Buckhorn Baths Motel is no stranger to historic and endangered lists. But this time, it's topped a new one - as the No. 1 pick on the Ten Most Endangered Roadside Places list released this week by the Society for Commercial Archeology, a national preservation organization based in Wisconsin.
The roadside motel is credited for attracting the New York Giants to the Valley in the 1940s to relax and recuperate in its hot mineral spring baths. Its owner, 103-year-old Alice Sliger, along with her late husband, Ted Sliger, expanded their service station in 1939 into a motel resort complete with bathhouses and casitas. She had to close the place for health reasons in 1999.
But the 10-acre site with mature landscaping, a popular rest stop for Main Street travelers before U.S. 60 was built, still draws the eyes of preservationists who believe it's a one-of-a-kind representation of Americana, a quintessential example of roadside lodging architecture at the height of the highway system being developed in the United States. Its monumental sign, they say, is reflective of the era in which people driving by would see the bright neon sign off the highway and stop by.
"It's a fascinating multicomponent motel resort, not just any roadside motel," said architectural historian John Murphey, board member of Society for Commercial Archeology.
Murphey said besides the architectural uniqueness, a key reason the Baths stood first on the list was the cultural and historical significance of helping establish spring training in Arizona.
The story goes that Giants owner Horace Stoneham brought the players to the Buckhorn who so enjoyed the warm, relaxing bath, that he decided to make the state their spring training base. There's no dearth of baseball stars who've soaked in the water, from Gaylord Perry to Ty Cobb.
In fact, said Vic Linoff, chairman of the Mesa Historical Society, Stoneham would bring his star players a week early for practice and they would enjoy therapeutic sessions at the motel.
The motel was also home to Ted Sliger's huge taxidermy collection, which Alice Sliger has indicated she would like to see transferred to a local museum. Buckhorn also reflected the owners' personal style, with a wall at a corner of the property made of a stone used by Native Americans to grind corn.
The site, on Main Street and Recker Road in east Mesa, made the National Register of Historic Places in 2005 and was listed among the 2007 list of Arizona's Most Endangered Historic Places.
The property's up for sale and is considered endangered also because it's valuable for commercial redevelopment.
"That place is very valuable to tear it down and put up a Walmart or K-Mart instead of a mineral spa," said Vince Murray, historian at Arizona Historical Research. Murray hopes that being on these lists could help keep some semblance of this "icon on the highway" intact for future generations, perhaps as a retro hotel, like what has been done with the Valley Ho in Scottsdale.
"The idea of being on an endangered list is to bring visibility up for a site that potentially could be torn down," Murray said. "Unless the public is aware of them, the chances are we'll lose them to commercial development."
Murphey said the organization's initial focus used to be to research and document historic roadside attractions, but because of the "rapid" loss of such sites, it decided to come up with an endangered list to draw attention to those sites and passionate and benevolent people who'd want to preserve them in some form.