During the 1950s Craftsman Court and Fifth Avenue were the heart of Scottsdale’s robust and vibrant arts scene. This vibrancy was both cause and symptom of Scottsdale’s newly inaugurated status as a glamorous, tourist destination. National publications like Life Magazine and People and Places giddily enthused about the marvels fashioned by Scottsdale’s artists and craftspeople, and in 1957 Westways magazine boldly proclamation that Scottsdale had more artists per square block than any other American community.
For decades Scottsdale had attracted artists with its unique desert landscape and health-inducing dry heat (sure to burn away any lingering tubercular maladies), but immediately after World War II artists took on a new prominence within the community. These years witnessed the expansion of Scottsdale’s downtown, the installation of a host of new services and amenities, and the efforts of the chamber of commerce and a core group of local movers and shakers to craft a new, stylized image for Scottsdale as the “West’s most Western town.” While specialty retail shops proliferated in this environment of growth, so too did workspaces where the public could both watch artists and craftspeople at work and purchase their finely-wrought wares—which included mosaics, cut and polished gems, pottery, leatherwork, and hand-screened textiles.
The Arizona Craftsmen was one of the first of these establishments and its resident artists included leatherworker Lloyd Kiva New, wood-carver Phillips Sanderson, sculptor Mathilde Schaefer, painter Lew Davis, and silversmith Wesley Segner. The concept of a combined studio and shop was enormously popular with tourists and even former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt paid a visit to the Arizona Craftsmen. When the building burned down in 1950, the displaced artists purchased a parcel of land east of Scottsdale Road and just south of the Arizona Canal. They cut a road through the newly acquired land and named it Fifth Avenue after New York’s swanky shopping boulevard, but by 1955 they had outgrown their new workspace and moved just east to a new complex now known as Craftsman Court. Though this was far from being the only studio/shop open to the public, the complex’s modern design best reflected the artists’ philosophical approach to their work as they integrated the idioms of traditional Southwestern arts and crafts with modern fashion and design mediums.
Along Fifth Avenue, the establishment of unique boutiques stocked with luxurious handmade items solidified the town’s reputation as a shopping and tourist haven. The well-heeled ladies staying at Elizabeth Arden’s Maine Chance Spa would practically empty the arts and crafts shops of their inventory during the spa’s weekly outing. Fashion shows and special events brought new cache to the town and soon even the most exclusive stores in Beverly Hills and New York were only too happy to feature the Western-inflected designs of Scottsdale artists. By the close of the 1950s, the national prominence of Scottsdale’s artists and craftspeople and the popularity of Craftsman Court and Fifth Avenue helped create a new identity for the town—a glittering, fashionable, artistic, and distinctly Western identity.