'Human Spider' Free-Climbs Downtown Phoenix’s First Skyscraper

by Douglas C. Towne
Community Education Featured History Spotlight Douglas C. Towne June 17, 2021

The Heard Building Tower in the 1950s. (Photo: “Arizona Contractor & Community” magazine)

What could be more exciting than the completion of Phoenix’s first skyscraper? How about having a daredevil who called himself the “Human Spider” free climb the building’s seven-story façade, with his tiny dog tucked into his shirt, and then perform acrobatic stunts on the roof?

The details of this feat, performed before a crowd in Downtown Phoenix, still make those with acrophobia shudder.

Arizona’s capital finally hit the big time in the Roaring Twenties, having just surpassed Tucson in population. Phoenix wanted to promote itself as a modern, progressive municipality with an inspiring skyline. To launch this upward trend, local businessman Dwight B. Heard financed the construction of the eponymous building in 1919.

Heard Building pictured at the Dec. 27, 1920 Grand Opening. (Photo: “The Arizona Republic”)

The Heard Building at 112 N. Central Avenue was completed to great acclaim in 1920. The tallest building in Arizona, constructed of reinforced concrete, became the home of many businesses, including Heard’s newspaper, The Arizona Republican, now called The Arizona Republic.

The multi-storied office building was soon surpassed in height by the 10-story Luhrs Building in 1924. But during its short tenure as the city’s tallest structure, the Heard Building hosted one of Phoenix’s most exciting events, on April 19, 1922, at approximately 6:15 p.m.

The Heard Building in the 1920s. (Photo: McCulloch Brothers Inc.)

Bill Strother, the “Human Spider,” would then climb the building’s façade, “making his way upward apparently in defiance of the law of gravitation…[and] find crevices in that smooth face where none seem to exist,” according to the Republican. Strother was famous for free climbing buildings in the East and stopped in Phoenix to display his skills.

At the event, spectators filled the street and the windows of nearby buildings. Strother’s team collected donations, with a liberal percentage of the funds being donated to the Disabled American Veterans of the World War. Strother, carrying his dog, then began scaling the building.

When the Heard Building opened in 1920, the offices of “The Arizona Republican,” precursor to “The Arizona Republic” newspaper, occupied most of the first floor and portions of the basement. In 1930, Dwight Heard’s publishing company purchased “The Phoenix Gazette” — hence the signage that reads “Republic and Gazette.” (Photo: McCulloch Brothers Inc.)

Strother reached the roof in 15 minutes, which included acrobatic demonstrations on the window sills. He then did a headstand on the extreme corner of the cornice. Strother ended his performance by shimmying up the flagpole atop the building, where he sat and read the Republican with his “6-ounce” dog perched on his knee.

The skilled acrobat performed a similar climb the following day and rode a bike around the top of the Heard Building on the edge of the cornice. To the relief of the crowd, there were no mishaps in the performance.

After climbing the Heard Building in 1922, Bill Strother appeared in the silent film, “Safety Last!” This image of Harold Lloyd, the film’s star, shows him hanging from a large clock on the outside of a skyscraper. (Photo: filmaffinity.com / The Criterion Collection)

Both Strother and the Heard Building found continued success afterward. Strother would soon retire from climbing buildings, but not before starring, with Harold Lloyd, in the 1923 silent film classic, Safety Last!

The Heard Building was capped with a large KTAR radio tower in 1930 and became part of the scenery in the Alfred Hitchcock film Psycho, released in 1960.

A 75-foot surrealist mural was painted on the south side of the Heard Building by the Swedish artist duo Nevercrew in 2018. It still functions as an office building. (Photo: Lauren Potter | 2020)

The city’s first high-rise remains a vital part of Downtown Phoenix. It went through a major interior remodel in 2018, and a company called Expansive, formerly Novel Coworking, currently rents all eight floors as office space. It’s also a popular destination for photos, with a 75-foot mural adorning the entire south side.

Lewellyn A. Parker, the building’s architect, told the Republican in 1920 that Dwight Heard had given him few design specifications. “His sole thought was not to give Phoenix a building good enough for the present but to provide for the Phoenix of tomorrow.” The architect certainly delivered on Heard’s vision.

About the author: Douglas C. Towne’s fondest recollection of the Heard Building is dining at Focaccia Fiorentina, located on the ground floor. He was introduced to the Italian restaurant when he won a free lunch drawing at the Lincoln Family Downtown YMCA. The eatery closed in 2017.