KGUN 9 On Your SideNewsAbsolutely Arizona

Actions

Reflecting on history of Tucson's glass and steel upside-down pyramid

Posted: 2:16 PM, May 31, 2022
Updated: 2022-05-31 21:22:25-04
Upside-Down Pyramid

TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — It is one of the most recognizable office buildings in Tucson. After all, you don't often see a building shaped like an upside-down pyramid.

The glass and steel structure has become iconic.

"People love it or hate it," said Tucsonan Phil Swaim.

He knows this building better than most. He's an architect with Swaim Associates.

His father, Robert Swaim, designed the upside-down pyramid back in the late 1970s.

Swaim reflects on why Western Savings chose an upside-down pyramid back then, for its new location at Speedway and Wilmot.

"Western Savings actually needed more square footage upstairs than they needed downstairs," explained Phil Swaim. "So, there were two options. One was this upside-down pyramid. The second was actually one where it was just a regular rectangular building with a larger footprint upstairs, overhanging the downstairs."

Swaim says his firm even constructed models of both structures. Western Savings selected the pyramid.

Upside-down pyramid building designed by Swaim Associates

"They wanted the iconic image," according to Swaim. "What they basically said is if you have a friend coming from out of town and need to tell them how to get to Mt. Lemmon, drive down Speedway, turn left at the upside-down pyramid. And that's what they got."

From an architectural and construction standpoint in the late 1970s, this was not an easy building to build.

Upside-down pyramid building

"It was difficult to find a steel contractor that could be that accurate with those strange angles back at that time," said Swaim. "Now we've got 3D modeling capabilities and things. The technology makes it much easier. Here they need a real craftsman. I think it was Peck Steel that did this. To get things to fit, upside-down angles and things, was not an easy thing to build."

Perfectly constructed, it quickly became a Tucson landmark.

Many years ago, the old Tucson Citizen asked readers to list their favorite and least favorite buildings in town.

"This building showed up on both," Swaim said. "Which I think is great. So at least people notice it and you have some passion about architecture and art, which I think is really valuable for Tucson."

Also valuable, the building itself. While Vantage West will remain as the bottom floor tenant, the upside-down pyramid is on the market.

"The building's for sale for $1,975,000," said Rick Kleiner, Principal with Cushman & Wakefield PICOR.

That's right, you can own one of Tucson's most iconic buildings for just under 2 mil.

Upside-down pyramid for sale

Well worth it for the views from the second floor, according to Kleiner.

He is the listing agent for Cushman & Wakefield Picor. Until 2018, they used the second floor as their offices.

"It was very easy to tell people where we were headquartered," Kleiner said. "It's a really fabulous building. The second floor space for an office user is really incredible because of the cantilevered walls, as you can see."

For those of us who remember when the building first opened, there was a big atrium in the middle of the upside-down pyramid.

Upside-down pyramid building atrium

"This space that we're now standing on was wide open and it was really quite remarkable," recalled Kleiner. "The skylight was open. But we said we really need some more office space, so fill it in."

Like the atrium, Western Savings is no more. Vantage West has occupied the first floor since 2002, continuing the tradition of banking in the upside-down pyramid.

"I think our members are very proud of the fact that they have this iconic branch, that we've been serving them here for 20 years," said Vantage West Vice President of Corporate Communications Jill Casey Pintor. "We'll continue to do that even with the sale of the building."

Part of that banking tradition continues to include a drive-thru that takes you right through to corner of the pyramid. Something Phil Swaim's dad, Robert, still enjoys nearly 45-years after he designed it.

"He loves this," said Phil Swaim. "This is certainly one of his favorite buildings he ever did."

Robert Swaim is 92, and enjoying retirement.

These buildings are very rare, although city hall in Tempe is a 6-story upside-down pyramid.

Kleiner says he has several interested buyers for the upside-down pyramid. Again, Vantage West will remain a tenant on the ground floor.

——-
Pat Parris is an anchor and reporter for KGUN 9. He is a graduate of Sabino High School where he was the 1982 high school state track champion in the 800 meters. While in high school and college, he worked part-time in the KGUN 9 newsroom. Share your story ideas and important issues with Pat by emailing pat.parris@kgun9.com or by connecting on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.