Dicey Construction: The Security Building’s Scandalous Financing Scheme
By Douglas Towne
The Security Building was the toast of Downtown Phoenix when it opened in 1928 at the southwest corner of Central Avenue and Van Buren Street. Arizona’s tallest building was an ornate structure financed by a 15-person syndicate headed by powerbroker Dwight B. Heard, the then-Arizona Republican publisher. His newspaper labeled the building an “architectural gem” and devoted pages describing its amenities, from the gilded ground-floor marble lobby detailed in gold trim to the copper tower's beacon light visible for 30 miles to guide travelers to Phoenix.
The newspaper, however, neglected to mention the booze-fueled revelry that transpired inside the Security Building while it was still under construction. A half-century would pass before it was publicly revealed that the funds used to finish the project came from allowing a political operative to run an illicit casino and brothel on the building's top floors for a fortnight. Senior government officials reportedly approved the audacious plan. “The full story is one of the better skeletons in Arizona’s closet,” Arizona Republic columnist Paul Dean wrote in 1978.
Such shenanigans were not uncommon during the Roaring ‘20s. The decade was a transformative time for Phoenix as it morphed from a backwater farming community to a compact, bustling city with paved streets and high-rise buildings. The city’s economic progress was accompanied by the merriment associated with the decade, including a roller-skating craze, vaudeville shows at the Orpheum Theatre, and the city’s pretty young things dancing the Charleston at the Riverside Ballroom.
For those seeking less wholesome activities, there were speakeasies, gambling dens, and brothels. Prohibition had outlawed booze, but spirits still flowed in Phoenix. Gambling and prostitution flourished, facilitated by police kickbacks and fines that enriched municipal coffers. “The 1920s was mostly known for vice, not violent crimes in Phoenix,” historian Heidi Osselaer says.
Security Building, 2018.
It was in this permissive landscape that the Dwight B. Heard Investment Company announced plans to construct the eight-story Security Building to be named after Heard’s 15-person syndicate called the Security Improvement Company at the site of the Central Schoolhouse. Business offices would be situated between merchants on the ground floor and a rooftop restaurant. Groundbreaking for the Second Renaissance Revival-style building, which drew inspiration from 16th Century Italian architecture and consisted of a reinforced concrete structure sheathed in hand-molded multicolored brick, took place in December 1927.
“Phoenix Sky Line Soars,” proclaimed the Republican on its front page, when the Security Building opened in July 1928. The issue featured many details of the project, listing the building’s first 50 tenants, including the Fuller Brush Company, the brand of paint used, and noting that local bandleader Clinton Julian and his Orchestra performed on the eighth floor, to the delight of dancing couples. This conventional storyline remained the building’s official history for a half-century.
Central Avenue with American Kitchen on the left and the Security Building in the distance on the right, 1940s.
The Security Building’s secret past finally leaked out in 1978 during a celebration commemorating its 50th anniversary. Henderson Stockton, an attorney who was the building’s first tenant and who still maintained a fifth-floor office, was interviewed as part of the festivities by the Republic. The 85-year-old Stockton had become a lawyer at age 17. He was regarded as an outstanding trial attorney and a dapper dresser, known for donning a boutonniere when in court. Stockton was also a political insider who challenged Carl Hayden and Ernest McFarland in the Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate in the 1940s.
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This article originally appeared in the bimonthly Arizona Contractor & Community magazine, Jan/Feb 2021 issue, Vol. 10, No. 1.