Skip to Content or Accessibility Information

History of Prescott

Prescott was founded in 1864 as the Territorial Capital of Arizona. Though three of the names originally proposed for Prescott were "Audubon", "Goodwin City" and "Aztlan", the name "Prescott" was chosen in honor of William Hickling Prescott, author of The History of the Conquest of Mexico. The Arizona Miner reported that the name was accepted because Prescott was "a good citizen, a true patriot, with industry, perseverance under difficulty, amiability of character and love of country."

At the same time Prescott was established as the Territorial Capital, it was also designated as the County Seat of Yavapai County, one of four original territorial counties. Although the Capital moved to Tucson from 1867 to 1877, the Capital returned to Prescott at the end of 1877 and remained until it was moved permanently to Phoenix in 1889. During these years as Territorial Capital, Prescott was the dominant political center of the Territory and was protected and influenced by the presence of nearby Fort Whipple.

The decade of the 1880s saw fluctuations in the economic condition of Prescott due to slumps in mining activity, especially a severe slump in 1885 which resulted in the closing of several Prescott businesses. The community was strong enough to recover economically based on the rapid growth of the cattle industry in the area. On December 31, 1886, the Arizona Central Railway was opened connecting Prescott with the Atlantic and Pacific. In 1893 it was replaced by a branch of the Santa Fe. By 1895 the Santa Fe, Prescott and Phoenix Railroad(also known as the "Peavine") connected Prescott's mining area with the Southern Pacific line. The access to the railroad bolstered the mercantile sector of the local economy and led to the establishment of several new dry goods and mining supply businesses. Communication and utilities improved along with transportation. An electric light plant was built in 1889 and telephones arrived shortly thereafter. The year 1889 also marked the year that the Capital was moved to Phoenix. In spite of this political loss, Prescott continued to prosper and develop as the 19th Century drew to a close.

By 1900, established residences were clearly reflecting the Victorian era architectural styles: Cottages, Greek Revival, Octagon, Queen Anne, Gothic Revival, Eastlake, Stick, Shingle, Italianate. People were moving across Granite Creek and into areas south and west of town. Commercial development was altered dramatically when a disastrous fire on July 14, 1900, destroyed four and one-half blocks of downtown Prescott. Twelve hotels and 20 mercantile establishments were lost. After the fire, citizens soon viewed the event as a chance to replace the old wooden buildings common in the downtown area with more permanent concrete, brick and stone buildings. These buildings reflected a shift from exuberant Victorian styles to a more controlled formality of styles.

The Fire of 1900 not only brought on a new era in architecture, but it also seemed to stimulate a variety of social and public improvements. Downtown, cement sidewalks and paved streets replaced the dusty thoroughfares of the 1800s. Fort Whipple was reopened after a brief closure in the 1890s, which provided the community with a steady influx of federal dollars. Craftsman, Classical Bungalow, Vernacular and Revival architecture became the prominent residential styles during the first part of the century and remained popular through the 1930s.

The Yavapai Chamber of Commerce (now the Prescott Chamber of Commerce) was founded in 1914 to promote Yavapai County and especially the Prescott area for its healthful climate. Prescott, along with Arizona in general, was experiencing an increase in tourism. Summer, in particular, was a busy time of the year for Prescott. Many families from Phoenix would stay in summer homes in or around Prescott, or "camp out" in tents, or sometimes, in elaborate portable houses.

The Copper Mining Industry also supported area growth in the early 20th Century because of the extra demands for World War I. However, by 1919 Prescott suffered the effects of postwar depression along with the rest of the state and nation. Even so, after reduction in population during World War I, Prescott was again enjoying a steady growth rate with a population in 1920 of 5,010.

The pre-World War II depression was also very hard on the state and local area economy. Thousands of banks failed, and people were left without work or savings. However, local and federal assistance programs (the PWA, CCC, WPA) were well organized in Prescott during the late 1930s. Many local unemployed found work with the WPA in Prescott without having to leave their families. There was a definite slump in the tourism industry and almost no growth or expansion between 1932 and 1935. There was very little building during World War II. However, starting in 1946, there was a significant increase in both residential and commercial building reflecting the nationwide boom in growth and home ownership for the middle class. Prescott's significant growth occurred in the 1980s; and, since the 1980 census, the population has at least doubled.

The Plaza was created in 1864 when the Prescott Original Townsite was surveyed and mapped by Robert Groom, who followed the typical 19th Century concepts of town planning. Laying out the townsite in a grid, Groom set aside two city blocks for government purposes - the Plaza and the Capitol Block. They were connected by Liberty Street, now Union Street. As the Territorial Capital and the seat of Yavapai County government, Prescott was an important town (although few would agree that it qualified as a town) in a vast wilderness. Yavapai County alone initially included 65,000 square miles of land, most of it inaccessible and inhabited by hostile peoples who were not welcoming to the new settlers.

Originally, the Plaza was a vacant piece of land with Ponderosa pine trees. Soon, however, the trees had been cut down for building materials and sheep were grazing on the tall grass. Wells were drilled on the four corners of the Plaza and fencing soon followed, although the tall grass was still present when the new pink brick courthouse was completed in 1878. As the center of the small community of Prescott, it became a popular gathering place, as it is today.

The first Prescott Courthouse was located in the 100 block of North Cortez Street. The first structure, other than small storage buildings and shacks, to be constructed on the Plaza was the 1878 Courthouse. It was followed by the construction of a chapel, bandstand, water tank and a decorative fountain. Trees, grass and a cactus garden were planted, gravel paths were laid out and a fence was erected. This layout for the bandstand, fountain and the walkways still exists today. Today, the Plaza is surrounded by a park-like setting of grass and trees, which in turn is ringed by commercial businesses and government offices on the four streets facing the Plaza.

By 1916, the courthouse was inadequate and plans were underway for a new building in a neo-classical style. The old courthouse was torn down in 1916. The site was not cleared completely, however, as the bandstand, fountain and graveled pathways remained.

The cornerstone was laid for a new courthouse on October 19, 1916. Behind the cornerstone a copper box was installed which was to be opened in 100 years. The box contains photographs, receipts from local businesses and three issues of Yavapai Magazine.

Many celebrations of every kind have been held on the Plaza - Independence Day gatherings began in 1864 and many have been held on the Plaza.

When Judge Edmund W. Wells erected his elegant home in 1878-79, he undoubtedly wanted to build a comfortable home for his family. At the same time, however, he was concerned with making a statement regarding his status in the community and reflecting the latest in current architectural tastes. As a distinguished lawyer, legislator and financier who came to Prescott in 1864, he spared no expense in the building of his Italianate influence Victorian era house.

While the Wells home reflected the influences of Italy, other homes being built in Prescott in the 1870s, 80s and 90s espoused the styles of other historic influences from Europe and England including Gothic, Shingle, Romanesque, Eastlake, Queen Anne, Georgian and Victorian Melange.

Today, the homes and commercial buildings of the Victorian era are often recognized as those structures of the 1800s that employed a variety of designs and embellishments to create unique and exciting designs. Steeply pitched and varied rooflines, bracketed eaves, multiple layers of trim, turrets and towers, arched, bay and oriel windows, turned columns with fancy capitals: each of these elements characterize the architecture that we generally refer to as "Victorian". But what is Victorian architecture?

Generally, "Victorian architecture" is that which came into being during the reign of Queen Victoria of England. Ascending to the throne n 1837, she lived until 1901. However, the Victorian era is often rounded off to 1840 to 1900. Queen Victoria had little or nothing to do with the architectural designs of the nineteenth century. Rather, her reign paralleled an era of great technological, economic and social advance. These events paved the way for advancements in building techniques, new materials, the ability to transport materials, and, consequently, unprecedented experimentation in architecture.

In the early days of the Victorian era, the United States was still an agrarian nation. By the end of the era, however, the Untied States had emerged as a powerful industrial player in the world economy. The industrial revolution ushered in may new economic, educational and social changes for the people of the United States. Along with these changes came a burgeoning interest in domestic and world travel and, consequently, the broadening of aesthetic tastes. Great strides in personal wealth also supported this shift in aesthetic taste, resulting in a desire for over-the-top decor. Advances in transportation made the dissemination of goods throughout the country much easier and catalogs, magazines and other literature gave the average homeowner unprecedented access to new ideas and new products.

In the American West, this shift in the availability of transportation along with goods and the expansion of tastes moved communities from strictly rural life to the beginnings of urbanization. The "Victorian" styles represented the bridge in the gap between wilderness and civilization.

In 1864 the "Governor's Mansion" was built in Prescott - a log structure built by hand from locally felled trees. By 1876, sawmills were in operation and the local building style shifted from log to "Territorial Frame Cottages", one story with side or end gabled wood shingled roofs, horizontal sawn siding, glass windows, turned posts and a minimal amount of exterior decoration. In 1877, Dr. Warren E. Day built his Octagon House of locally made brick with Gothic and Italianate details including the "highly irregular" Gothic facade. That same year, Theodore Otis constructed his "L" shaped wood frame Gothic Revival home on North Pleasant Street and the Bashford/Norris House was constructed at 128 South Mt. Vernon Street, a Territorial Frame Cottage which was later (1905) to be remodeled into a more elaborate style with Eastlake influences. A mere one year later, Judge Wells was building his elaborate Italianate influence "Victorian" house. This was the beginning of the shift to more elaborate, high-style architecture in Prescott. Other buildings constructed in the 1870s include the Noah Sheckels House on South Cortez Street and the M. Goldwater Mercantile (1879).

There were many buildings constructed in Prescott in the 1880s, although a great number of them no longer exist. These include Curtis Hall and the Curtis Cottages on South McCormick Street, built by the Curtis brothers from lumber supplied by their sawmill, the Leonard Hale House on North McCormick Street, the Eli P. Clark House at 109 North Pleasant Street, the Jane Roberts House and the Obdulia Delaney House, also on North Pleasant Street, and the John T. Shull House and the W. J. Mulvenon House (demolished). These buildings, particularly the houses, were essentially constructed with a fairly simple plan, simple rooflines and a minimum of ornamentation, although some did exhibit decorative architectural details, such as sawn-work brackets, quoins, spindlework, and turned posts.

Frequently, nineteenth century buildings are lumped together under the catch-all phrase "Victorian", especially if they exhibit towers, turrets, stained glass windows, detailed trim work, second story porches or elaborate roof lines. But general terms do not adequately tell the stories of the architectural design movements that were spawned during the Victorian era. And many of the elements which can be attributed to a particular stylistic classifications were mixed and matched with great artistic abandon within individual buildings - thus the use of the term "Victorian Melange" for several of Prescott's Victorian era buildings. Transcending both cultural and economic class, these melting pot mixtures of architectural elements were a product of personal taste and a desire to make a personal statement regarding ones home, whether that statement be related to economics, social standing, profession, hometown influences or ethnic background.

But during the 1890s the architecture influenced by the Victorian age really stepped into the forefront in Prescott. Most of high-style homes built during this period, from 1890 to 1906, reflect a mix of Victorian era styles - Gothic, Greek Revival, Eastlake, Georgian Revival, Italianate, Shingle, Queen Anne, Classical and Colonial Revival and the mostly indescribable "Victorian Melange". Queen Anne style predominates, and although the style has nothing to do with Queen Anne, who reigned over Great Britain from 1802 to 1714, it was the initial creation of Richard Norman Shaw, an English architect. Queen Anne has become one of the most recognized of the Victorian era architectural styles. Characterized by embellishment in nearly every conceivable way, common elements include steeply pitched, irregularly shaped roofs with several planes, asymmetrical facades made up of a balance of contrasting shapes including octagons, hexagons, stepped bays, curved elements, turned elements, spindle and sawn work, wood shingles used in decorative patterns, elaborate eave brackets, verandas and "L" shaped or rounded one or two story porches, leaded and stained glass windows, fan and eyebrow windows, dormers, a second story stringcourse or overhang and decorative balusters, sometimes utilizing several patterns in one buildings.

As each iteration of Victorian style ran its course in the east, it was transported to the American west by new arrivals, pattern books, architectural magazines, building plans, and the availability of the goods needed to build Victorian era architecture. In the west, these styles often took on a strictly local or regional look, based on the local availability of materials and craftsmen. This results in an overlap of stylistic elements and the blurring of typical timelines which are normally assigned to various architectural styles of the Victorian era, giving western communities like Prescott as distinctively unique architectural identity. In Prescott, there were several buildings constructed in the late 1890s and early 1900s which reflect this blending of styles, but at the same time clearly show a trend toward more simple styles, based primarily on the classical styles - Neo Classical, Renaissance, Colonial and 20th Century Transitional influences. The most intact example of this shift is the former Ft. Whipple, not the Veterans Administration Medical Center. As these styles became more popular, the residential buildings began to transition to the Bungalow styles, which became the primary trend in the teens twenties and thirties, along with a few revival styles, such as Tudor and Mission.