Gringo Star, LSD and hippies: The history of Mill Avenue's Laird and Dines building

Perhaps Tempe’s most historic cultural hub and landmark is Mill Avenue. To students, residents and tourists Mill Avenue may just look like a strip mall littered with bars, restaurants, boutiques and other shops, but a rich history lies in the 1.2 miles between Gammage Auditorium and the Hayden Flour Mill. 



In this series, I will be exploring the backstories of Mill from the perspectives of the local business owner, historians and residents. By the end of this series, my goal is to create a timeline of Tempe’s hottest spots and their humble, historical origins. 

Since May 2013, Mill Avenue's Gringo Star Street Bar has been the place to go for Thirsty Thursdays and the rest of the weekend. However, a rich history resides in the bones of what some call the Laird and Dines Building, home to not only Gringo Star but Rooftop Lounge and Low Key Piano Bar as well.

Whether it be drinking yourself numb in the 2000s, copious amounts of LSD and marijuana in the ‘70s or just pharmaceuticals at the turn of the century, Laird and Dines has always been a “feel good” place.

We all know it's Thursday which means 2 for 1 call drinks all night!

A photo posted by ⒼⓇⒾⓃⒼⓄ ⓈⓉⒶⓇ (@gringostarstreetbar) on

Origins

The Laird and Dines Building, as it is known today, was built in 1893 for Dr. S.C. Heineman and R. Gill. By 1901, it was known as the William Building named after its owner. It wasn’t until then that Dr. J.A. Dines and Hugh E. Laird opened their drug store that stayed in business until 1964.

The Laird and Dines Building’s aesthetic was inspired by Victorian-style architecture. It had woodwork characteristic of the period and details including columns, ornate balustrades, and octagonal turrets.

Politics

Both owners of Laird and Dines Drug Store were very important community leaders in the formative years of Tempe. Dines served as the fifth mayor of Tempe from 1903 to 1912 and again from 1916 to 1920.  Laird held the position from 1928 to 1930 and 1948 to 1960.

Laird and Dines weren’t the only politicians to benefit from the building. Senator Carl Hayden and Governor Benjamin B. Mouer both ran their campaign offices there in the ‘20s and ‘30s. Richard Nucci, a former City of Tempe Historic Preservation Officer, mentioned the rumors regarding the sketchy politics of the time.

“The Laird and Dines drugstore was the de facto city hall for a number of smokey backroom deals and political activities that were common in small, rural communities back in the ‘30s,” Nucci said. 

Highways

In 1929, the Victorian style architecture was considered outdated and the Laird and Dines Building was redesigned to be more consistent with the Spanish Colonial style architecture. The architects took off the tower, laid stucco around the brick and formed arches. Many of Tempe’s historic buildings had this treatment during the time. 

Thirty years later, Arizona designated Mill Avenue a state highway. This had grave implications for the Laird and Dines Building as part of its overhang had to be removed due to highway codes. Mark Vinson, Tempe City Architect and a former City of Tempe Historic Preservation Officer, said it changed the look of the building.

“The colonnade on the west side of the building facing Mill Avenue was cut off,” Vinson said. “They put a metal screen on all of the windows. It looked horrible.”

In 1963, Laird and Dines Drug Store closed for good. All of the Laird and Dines heirs were all across the country so the building was managed professionally until the city of Tempe took title of it in the aftermath.

Hippies

Despite Laird and Dines Drug Store no longer serving Tempe, the building’s history continued to grow. At one point in the mid-'60s, The Laird and Dines Building was even a hostel of sorts — the second floor hosted many of Tempe’s free-spirits and nomads. Richard Mickle, a tenant for three months in the fall of 1966, recalls the arts, drugs and dynamic of Tempe at the time.

“Laird and Dines was basically a hippie pad,” Mickle said. “Mike Smith, an incredible local artist at the time, did a mural in the upstairs living room. It was a large leafless tree and it encompassed a whole wall. Bob Dylan had a very frizzy hairstyle in ’66 and Mike Smith had drawn Dylan’s face into the tree. When you looked deeper into the tree you realize that the canopy was actually his hair.”


Mickle was in a band called The Holy Grail at the time and would often play in ‘love-ins’ at Tempe Beach (today known as Tempe Beach Park). Mickle characterizes this period with marijuana, psychedelics and peacefulness. He was just one of the many characters that resided on the second floor of the Laird and Dines Building.

However, the main tenants during this time were Circus, a hippie paraphernalia and head shop, and Wax Thread, a leather shop and a vegetarian restaurant.

McDonalds

In 1994, the City of Tempe, with the help of Vinson, rehabilitated the Laird and Dines Building back to its pre-1929 aesthetic. Adjacent to the original building, an architecturally compatible three-story extension was added so that developers had more room to work with and so clients would have their necessary square footage.

The first tenants in the rehabilitated Laird and Dines was a McDonalds on the first floor and a Hooters on the second. The McDonalds didn’t last because of the lack of a drive-thru, but Hooters stayed open for more than 20 years before it closed earlier this year.

After McDonalds, the first floor went through a series of owner including a Mongolian grill, and The Library Restaurant and Bar before becoming Gringo Star Street Bar.

Present

During the rehabilitation period, Vinson and many Tempe officials tried to register the Laird and Dines Building under the National Register of Historic Places. Unfortunately, this never came to fruition as much of the building was altered from its original state. Despite that, The Laird and Dines Building is one of Tempe’s most iconic and historic leasers. Vinson appreciates its tenants and its historical implications.


“Any use of it allows the building to exist in its current form and this is typically a good thing,” Vinson said. “The worst enemy of a historic building is vacancy. That is when bad things start to happen.”

Related links:

An abridged history of Mill Avenue: The Tempe Hardware Building

An abridged history of Mill Avenue: The Hayden Flour Mill


Reach the reporter at tanner.stechnij@asu.edu or follow @tannerstechnij on Twitter.

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