The Valley’s Cake Buildings: A Little History Behind Gammage, ASU Music and Tovrea Castle
Some buildings look just like buildings; others can conjure up visions of happy songs, candles and wishes. Three of them are located in the Valley of the Sun and easily recognized because they all resemble gigantic birthday or wedding cakes. Two of them are on the Arizona State University campus in Tempe; the other is in east Phoenix.
ASU’s Grady Gammage Auditorium is the best known. It was designed by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and was originally scheduled for Baghdad, Iraq. But the building was never erected and the plans were shelved until 1957, when ASU president Grady Gammage contacted Wright about designing a concert hall. Wright produced his old plans, the deal was made and construction began in 1962. Neither Gammage or Wright lived to see its completion. The first event staged in the $2.46 million venue was a performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Eugene Ormandy, on Sept. 18, 1964. The auditorium contains 3,000 seats, all of them within 115 feet of the stage.
ASU Music Building
Not more than 100 yards away, the ASU Music Building sort of mirrors the Gammage Auditorium with its circular form, massive size and swooping architectural loops. Built in 1970, it was designed by Wesley Peters, who was Wright’s son-in-law. Music students who attend classes inside refer to it as the “birthday cake building.” It also houses a music theater, music library museum, music research facility, concert hall, recital halls and a hand-carved 1,800-pipe organ. Both structures are visible on Mill Avenue as it turns into Apache Boulevard.
When he erected the building now known as the Tovrea Castle in 1928, Alessio Carrao intended it to be a resort hotel. Working without blueprints, Carraro created a structure in the form of four elongated octagons sitting on each other, then topped it with a windowed tower, so the end result was a building that looked more like a cake than a hotel.
He called it Carraro Heights, but his dream vanished when the Tovrea family installed a packing plant and feeder lots directly adjacent to his property. He eventually sold out to the Tovreas, who moved into the building and stayed there until 1969. The city of Phoenix bought the castle and surrounding grounds in 1993 and has been working ever since to convert it into a reception venue. It’s on Van Buren Street between 48th and 52nd Streets.
In the ’70s (you know, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth), a professor in ASU’s College of Architecture told me that Gammage Auditorium was not designed by Wright but rather by his students, who were never credited for the design. Just sayin’.
My family used to go to Gammage every year to see the Barbershop, Sweet Adeline, and Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians, concerts. Fantastic events. Other wonderful ’70s concerts: Carlos Montoya, the master of Flamenco guitar, and PDQ Bach, master of musical silliness. At the end of that concert, my date and I felt exhausted by laughter.
Best concert I ever attended in my life: Gordon Lightfoot ca. 1984. I was up in the top balcony, but, in terms of sound quality, it was like being right down on the main floor in front ot him. (We actually thought that the sound quality is a bit better if you are to the right or left of center in the first few rows.) That is one great memory that comes back to me each time I hear a Lightfoot song.
I had a class in the “birthday cake building”. So did my grandmother. In the same semester. Finding classrooms and offices in it was a bit confusing at first. Once you understood the layout, it made perfectly good sense.
BTW, one frequently hears “Tovrea” pronounced “Toh-VRAY-uh.” Someone who was connected to the Tovrea family told me they pronounce it “TOH-vray.” Again… just sayin’.
What are you talking about? Who mentioned how to say Toh Vray uh? And no, you are wrong about Frank Loyd Wright and his students. (Just Saying) PS- Gammage has the worse sound quality and bathroom space issues of any theater in town.
I only stated what I had been told regarding Wright and the design of Gammage specifically. The professor in question had known Wright personally, so it seemed to me that he was in a good position to teach that information in his classes.
No one mentioned how to pronounce “Tovrea”, but that is why I prefaced it by saying “BTW”, which is “By The Way”. Tovrea Castle is included in the post above. I only sought to provide another bit of information about it. You are free to ignore it, if you like.
Where one is seated in Gammage makes a great difference in the sound quality. Having heard concerts in other locations, I stand by my opinion. You are not obliged to agree with me about that or anything else.
No, you are wrong.
In the year 2013, SARAD set the worlds of Arizona architecture, audiophelia and obscure word pronunciation ON FIRE with what some called brilliant observations and insightful critique, and what others lambasted as nothing more than base speculation at best, and outright heresy at worst. The origin of the design of Gammage Auditorium, the quality of the sonic experiences to be had therein, and the pronunciation of the word Tovrea; all were things that we felt were settled and stable science, bet then along came SARAD slaughtering sacred cows and upending conventional wisdom. Now in the aftermath of this iconoclast there are far more questions than answers, with any traces of certitude in short supply. One thing is certain; nothing will ever be the same in the wake of these radical pronouncements. The only question is whose truths will be left standing when all is said and done?