Downtown Flagstaff Walking Tour Stop #4 – The Vail Building
Vail Building Then and Now




Stop #4 on our downtown Flagstaff walking tour brings us back to the rough and rowdy, Wild West past of Flagstaff with the Parlor Saloon built by James Vail. So, let’s get started!

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New Town & Saloon Row

When the residents first started to move their business and houses over to New Town or sometimes called the East End many were, of course, saloons. One of the very first was built by James Vail on the northwest corner of San Francisco Street and what is today Route 66. Since its beginnings, Flagstaff has always been a little bit of a mix of seedy as well as sophisticated, a little bit weird but also educated. Today, there are bartenders with Masters degrees serving drinks by night and doing research by day and it was really no different over 100 years ago.

There were saloons strewn across town that would also house schools, reading rooms, and literary clubs, and Vail’s Parlor Saloon also known as the Parlor Exchange was no exception. In the early days, gunshots could be heard throughout the day and deaths were commonplace and the saloons outnumbered the other buildings in town combined. The downstairs of the Parlor Saloon fed the appetites of the rowdy while the upstairs fed the appetites of the more sophisticated with club meetings, social events, dances and more.

Brannen and Vail Buildings Flagstaff

The James Vail Building

The structure we see today was built in 1888 after the town finally passed an ordinance requiring all new constructions use either stone or brick, but the saloon was operated on the site for many years prior to this date. In old pictures we can see the wooden building with wrap around balconies, a stone building with a fancier facade, and of course the stucco covered Art Deco style design of today. This interesting facade was added in 1939 and is a reminder of the early days of Route 66 when motor hotels offered rooms with parking for single vehicles and diners were painted in colors like pink and blue and served up milkshakes and hamburgers.

Vail Building Credit Steven C Price Wikimedia
Photo Credit: Steven C Price on Wikimedia

Vail’s Other Interests

James Vail came to Flagstaff in 1882 and for the next 24 years he acted as everything from a lumber mill owner to a saloon owner to a real estate investor and finally to the owner of one of the largest ranching operations in Flagstaff by 1904. Unfortunately, at the height of his success Vail’s leg was crushed under a wagon wheel and it never quite healed. In April 1906, devastated, he walked into the Babbitt Brothers store, bought a gun, and took his own life.

The Parlor Saloon was taken over by Vail’s brother-in-law, George Black and it was renamed Black’s Bar. The operation continued through prohibition as a pool hall and it remained in the Black family until 1944. Today, the building is home to Crystal Magic which has been a staple in downtown Flagstaff for many decades.

The next stop on our downtown walking tour will take us just next door to the saloon of Sandy Donahue who was known for his ready fists and his kind heart. If you’d like to be notified when we make the next stop, sign up for our mailing list or head on over to YouTube and subscribe to our channel. Don’t forget to also hit that notification bell.

Until next time, keep exploring my friends! We’ll see you later.