Living History: The Magic of the Ellis-Shackelford House
The feeling that washes over you in the step it takes to cross the threshold of the Ellis-Shackelford House is more than just the relief of escaping the skin-shrinking heat of August—it’s as if the whole world stops moving, just like that.
To say that the house is like a time capsule would be a tired expression, and not quite accurate besides. Because although both the interior and exterior of the house are meticulously kept, there is still the feeling of a living presence which can’t be found in even the most carefully recreated museums. It has the internal glow of a space still warmed by human use; while no longer a family residence, it continues to serve the chosen city of her founder as the headquarters of the Arizona Humanities. The non-profit organization is dedicated to supporting and promoting—as the name indicates—the arts and other humanities in the state. As the mission statement puts it:
“Arizona Humanities builds a just and civil society by creating opportunities to explore our shared human experiences through discussion, learning and reflection.”
The Ellis-Shackelford’s front room plays host to events ranging from seminars on racial inequality to the releases of children’s books, while the upper story provides both office and storage space for the daily operations of the organization, which has spent around thirty of its forty-plus years of existence in the house. “It works really well,” Missy Shackelford tells me, smiling. “We are a small staff, so we don’t put a lot of wear and tear on the house, which is important.” Missy, who welcomes me at the door and acts as my guide through the house, is both the AZ Humanities office administrator and a member of the founding family by marriage, and she speaks with seemingly endless knowledge on the structure and its history.
(reproduction of the original design)
The building has had an eventful life, but despite its trials it remains as proud and sturdy as when it was designed and erected one hundred years ago. Its design was the brainchild of William C. Ellis, crafted with mahogany from the Philippines and bricks from Colorado. It also boasts a slew of features which were, at the time, cutting edge: a direct gain solar hot water heater, a cistern system to collect rain water, an in-floor vacuum system, and state-of-the-art electricals. Its attic space was regularly used as a ballroom, although now it only houses utilities and hardware. Missy’s favorite features are the rich wood panels and the crystal doorknobs.
“I love the simplicity of the design,” she says. “It’s not overly carved, it’s not overly ornate, and it just feels sturdy.” She’s right—the huge panels of uninterrupted mahogany speak for themselves, no-nonsense but still beautiful. These walls have seen four generations of family weddings, Missy tells me with pride, the most recent occurring last spring.
It’s so hard to imagine this magnificent, historic house—now filled with a mid-afternoon light that polishes every section of wood it touches and makes the velvet period furniture glow with a halo of light—colonized by pigeons and insects. But within living memory, that’s exactly the state that it was in: empty and collecting dust, sitting in limbo for much of the 60s and 70s. The property was lost to eminent domain and purchased by the department of transportation, who originally planned to plow through a section of the city and build a freeway. Thankfully, that particular scheme fell through, saving several historic properties from demolition.
Now, by contrast, as Missy says, “This is in the center of what’s developing into the cultural and arts center of Phoenix, and we’re right in the hub of that.” The house is a testament to the power of community, and now it is a sanctuary for that same community. And although its main purpose is as the offices of the AZ Humanities, they do “occasionally rent it out to other entities.” Its old-world style and luxury are, of course, some obvious bonuses to securing it as a host site, but on a practical level it also offers copious free parking in the immediate area. “And—” Missy stops and smiles. “Don’t laugh at me, but—it’s truly the spirit of the house. I mean, a lot of great things have happened here, and you just feel that when you walk in. At least I do.”
If, like me, the sight and the story of this incredible property spurs you to get more involved in the public humanities, you can always get involved with the Historic Preservation Office of Phoenix, or of course direct donations are always appreciated. But perhaps the most important thing we can do, Missy says, is “just coming out and enjoying them. We have so many amazing historic properties. The Rosen House, the Winship, the Puppet Theatre, this house…they’re all places for people to enjoy and really have a sense of what the foundation of our community has been through the people that built these houses, the work they did, who they were.”
It’s thanks to those people that we can enjoy the diverse, vibrant, and thriving city around us today, full of historic and artistic spirit. We can honor their memories by continuing to build strong and lasting relationships and to support the efforts of our citizens and students to build a better and more beautiful society.