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'Best gig in Arizona': The state's tallest building made countless memories. What's next for Phoenix landmark?

A bartender at the French restaurant housed on top floor in '70s remembers it as the 'best gig in Arizona.' Now the former Chase Tower could be closed for 3 years.

PHOENIX — If you came of age in the Phoenix area in the 1970s or '80s, you probably have a story to tell about Arizona's tallest building - the 40-story tower in the heart of downtown. 

Maybe it was a prom date. A wedding reception.

Or an elevator ride to gawk at a desert sunset with nothing on the horizon - absolutely nothing - to block a 360-degree view.

"They would walk right to the window and just ooh and aah," Gary Spadafore recalled in an interview at his home at the foot of Camelback Mountain. 

Spadafore had a front-row seat. He started his career at the top of the tower.

"I was starving - literally," he said.

Spadafore moved from Detroit to Phoenix in 1972 for a teaching job. But the poor pay made him an educator by day and a bartender by night.

"I had a little crummy apartment, a $200 motorcycle," he said. "So I had to get a job at night. And most jobs at night included alcohol."

'Arriving on the national scene'

Downtown Phoenix's shimmering Valley Center had just opened its doors in 1972. The glass-clad tower was the headquarters of Valley National Bank, Arizona's pre-eminent financial institution. 

Spadafore had seen the building going up at Van Buren and Central Avenue when he moved here.

"People felt that Phoenix was really arriving on the national scene," he said.

Perched at the top of the 40-story tower was the Golden Eagle restaurant, one of the finest restaurants in the Southwest. 

European wait staff served customers representing old and emerging Arizona - cotton growers and cattlemen along with executives, lawyers and doctors.

Each diner got a matchbook engraved with their name.  

Phoenix's most expensive restaurant also had two menus: one for men with the prices and one for women without the prices.

"It just seemed like the ladies shouldn't be bothered with having to look at prices," Spadafore said.

A buddy who knew Spadafore from another bar told him about a job opening at the Golden Eagle.

"It was the best bartending gig in Phoenix - in Arizona," he said. "It was a great place to work."

Spadafore would go on to a lifelong career in the wine and spirits business, working for Arizona's major distributors.

"The Phoenix in the '70s is hard to explain to people. You know, no traffic, no pollution," Spadafore said.

"I used to tell my friends back east, it's just the opposite of (the song) 'New York, New York' - 'If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.'

"In Phoenix, if you couldn't make it here, you couldn't make it anywhere. Because there was so much opportunity."

Tower changed hands several times

The Golden Eagle restaurant would become a private club that shut down more than a decade ago.

The building that opened as the Valley Center 50 years ago has changed hands several times over the last three decades, amid a national trend of bank consolidation. 

The most obvious symbol of that consolidation: The Arizona Diamondbacks' home field was once known as "BOB" - Bank One Ballpark. The stadium was rechristened as Chase Field in the early 2000s after Chase Bank took over Bank One. 

New York-based Chase Bank was the last financial institution to occupy the tower. Chase completed its move to a Tempe office campus in October 2021.

Chase's departure marked the first time in almost a century that a Valley Bank-related entity hadn't made downtown its home. 

It all started with a Polish immigrant

Valley National Bank's roots date to the Gila Valley Bank in the corner of Isadore Solomon's general store in his namesake Solomonville in the southeastern Arizona Territory of the 1890s, according to a bank history.

Solomon, one of the bank's founders, emigrated with his wife from Poland to America in 1872, according to the Jewish Museum of the American West.

The bank would expand beyond Graham County into nearby mining communities, where copper mining was booming. 

The Valley Center tower was built across Monroe Street from Valley National Bank's Depression-era Art Deco headquarters in the 12-story Professional Building, home to bank and medical offices. The building, now home to a Hilton Garden Inn, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Walter Bimson was the transformative figure who would catapult Valley Bank into the top tier of banks nationwide. Bimson was hired not long after the new Professional Building headquarters opened in 1933. 

He would ultimately make the decision as CEO to build the new 40-story headquarters across the street, rather than at Central and Osborn, in the Midtown area competing as a second downtown.

Phoenix historian Jon Talton called it "a vote of confidence in downtown" from one of the most powerful men in the city.

Hitchcock thriller keeps bank alive

Valley National Bank does live on - in an iconic Hollywood thriller. 

Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" (1960) opens with the camera panning across the downtown skyline of mid-century Phoenix. The shot takes in the neon sign (in black and white) atop Valley National Bank's old Professional Building headquarters.

The sign has its own claim to fame: It was the world's largest revolving neon sign, reportedly visible from 10 miles away.

The sign had a short shelf life. It was erected in 1958, then taken down and sold for scrap after the bank moved across the street in 1972.

Tower could be closed for 3 years

The 40-story tower is now empty, according to Christine Mackay, Phoenix's community and economic development director.

Fencing surrounds the building because the interior is being demolished, she said.

The new owner is a New York-based property management company whose principal is the son of the billionaire owner of the NHL's Florida Panthers.

The property is being redeveloped by Phoenix-based JDM Partners. The "J" is for Jerry Colangelo, the former owner of the Phoenix Suns and Arizona Diamondbacks who's played a significant role in downtown's destiny. 

The stadiums built for Colangelo's teams helped spur a new wave of entertainment-related downtown development in the '90s and 2000s.

Mackey said the new owner was "demolishing each floor," opening up the building for a potential hotel, retail or residential development. The moat below street level will likely be filled.

The project could take up to three years, she said.

'Open to virtually any type of use'

JDM provided this statement about the tower's future:

"The building and garage occupy two full city blocks in the heart of the downtown district in a location that is the crossroads of commerce and the growing residential population of the downtown area. 

"Currently, the original interior improvements are being removed.  Much to our expectation, this process has revealed that the building has truly magnificent bones. 

"The steel structure, glass curtain wall exterior, and centralized building core create a design opportunity wide open to virtually any type of use imaginable."  

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