Booze, Call Girls and Table Games: The Security Building’s Scandalous Origin Story

by Douglas C. Towne
Business Development Education History Douglas C. Towne May 29, 2020

During Prohibition, a pop-up nightspot materialized on the eighth floor of the unfinished Security Building, featuring bootleg liquor, casino games and ladies of the evening. (Photo: McCulloch Brothers Inc.)

A bold plan emerged during the Roaring ’20s to build an ornate structure that was to become Arizona’s tallest building. The Security Building, which still stands at the southwest corner of Central Avenue and Van Buren Street, was financed by a 15-person syndicate headed by Dwight B. Heard, publisher of the newspaper now called The Arizona Republic.

“Phoenix Sky Line Soars,” proclaimed the newspaper’s front page when the Security Building opened eight months later in July 1928. The structure was built with reinforced concrete with a hand-molded brick veneer, and featured a marble lobby detailed in gold trim. Business offices occupied the floors between merchants on the ground level and a restaurant at the top. The Renaissance Revival-style building had a glass dome at its peak that projected a beacon of light that could be seen for 30 miles.

Such was the building’s official history for a half-century, but many were unaware of its scandalous, hidden past. “The full story is one of the better skeletons in Arizona’s closet,” Republic columnist Paul Dean wrote in 1978.

The Security Building’s well-kept secret finally leaked out during celebrations commemorating its 50th anniversary. Henderson Stockton, a trial attorney and political insider who was the building’s first tenant, told the Republic that a casino and brothel were temporarily set up in the building’s penthouse to finance the end of the construction project.

Stockton, who was the Heard group’s legal counsel, was free to talk about the event since the death of his clients, and statute of limitations had waived the attorney-client privilege. The lawyer revealed how Heard’s syndicate lacked $100,000 to complete the Security Building, which was three-quarters finished, and in danger of becoming an eight-story shell.

The Security Building, pictured in 1948, was constructed for the Security Improvement Company, headed by prominent businessman Dwight B. Heard. (Photo: Arizona Collection / ASU Library)
North side of the Security Building, 2017. (Photo: Douglas C. Towne)
Henderson Stockton, 1963. A trial attorney and political insider, he detailed the Security Building's scandalous, hidden past in a tell-all with "The Arizona Republic." (Photo: "The Arizona Republic")
Wirt Bowman owned several gaming clubs in Tijuana, and helped transform the Security Building into a clandestine casino, funding the final leg of its construction. (Photo:
Security Building plaque, 2017. (Photo: Douglas C. Towne)
Security Building from the Westward Ho, 1930s. (Photo: McCulloch Brothers Inc.)
Security Building behind San Carlos Hotel, 1929. (Photo: McCulloch Brothers Inc.)
In addition to ranching and real estate, Dwight B. Heard was publisher of "The Arizona Republican," now "The Arizona Republic," from 1912 to 1929. (Photo: Wikipedia)
Security Building doors, 2017. (Photo: Douglas C. Towne)
Security Building postcard, 1930s. (Credit: Douglas C. Towne)
A close-up of the Security Building's ceiling in the lobby area, 2019. (Photo: Lauren Potter)
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He suggested the Heard group contact his friend, Wirt Bowman, an influential and wealthy national Democratic committeeman. The latter owned several gaming clubs in Tijuana, including a share of the opulent Agua Caliente Casino. Bowman told Heard’s group that he wasn’t in the loan business, but would provide the funding in exchange for a two-week franchise to operate a gambling operation on the eighth floor of the unfinished building.

Stockton then called the governor’s office, looking for off-the-record approval. “‘Stock, there just isn’t anybody smart enough in the governor’s office or the attorney general’s office who could find the Security Building in two weeks,’ Governor George Hunt said.” The Maricopa County sheriff, Phoenix mayor, and Phoenix police chief echoed Hunt’s remarks, so Bowman provided the money.

The pop-up nightspot materialized serving bootleg liquor, as Prohibition was still in effect, casino games, and ladies of the evening. Customers packed the penthouse club for eight days but abruptly moved to a safer one-story location for the last six days of the casino lease after a working girl was tossed out of an upper-floor window. She landed below on Stockton’s window sill, which saved her life.

Stockton, who passed away five months after the Republic interview, concluded his titillating revelations about the Security Building, saying, “[Others] can’t possibly have as much fun as we had building this one.”