124-Foot-Tall Prescott Home For Sale Exists Thanks To ‘Creative’ Read Of City Code

Published: Thursday, April 6, 2017 - 4:19pm
Updated: Thursday, April 6, 2017 - 4:28pm

(Photo courtesy of Russ Lyon Sotheby's International Realty)
The home is built very close to the peak of Thumb Butte.

Drive a couple hours north of Phoenix, and you’ll hit the mile-high city of Prescott, with its charming western center and a landmark backdrop of Thumb Butte, a mountain named for its distinct “thumb’s up” shape.

You can’t see it on a postcard, but at the base of that butte is a house — and not just any house.

“This is the tallest house in the world,” the architect, Sukumar Pal, has claimed.

His home towers over the pines at 124 feet. To put that in perspective, Niagara Falls is just 43 feet taller. Now he’s selling the house. The real question is, how was it built in the first place?

I’ve actually known this house’s tall frame for a while. I used to live in the neighborhood. Sometimes we’d take visitors up the road just to look at it. The sand-colored tower stretches into the air. In the middle, glass rooms jut out on all four sides. It’s more like a lookout post than a house. I had no idea who lived there or why they built it.

I learned it’s called the Falcon’s Nest, and that I wasn’t the only one who stopped by and wondered.

“They stand there for long time,” Pal said of his many visitors.

He not only designed the house but also used it as a second home.

“Busload of school children all looking up and seeing what is going on,” he said.

Sometimes he offered tours to passersby. Today, we’re meeting in his Phoenix home, which is also self-designed, though this one’s only three stories tall. On the living-room wall is a large, framed photo of the Falcon’s Nest.

“That elevator goes from ground zero …” Pal explained, pointing out the different levels and how you get to each. “And from there, the spiral staircase starts.”

From Pal’s living room window at the Nest, Thumb Butte doesn’t look like a thumb, like it does from a distance. You can see the individual crags in the rocky outcrop — the fingerprint of the thumb.

“And the narrow tower, it is an observation tower,” he said.

“I’ve always wondered what the really tall, almost spear-like structure is on the very very tip,” I said.

“Oh that spear is a very important item, which is lightning rod.”  

“Oh, it’s a lightning rod!” I exclaimed.

“This building is hit continuously during the rainy season,” he said.

But, why build something so tall it needs a lightning rod? Well, the view for one. But Pal said it wasn’t just that.   

“I needed the tower, number one reason was passive solar energy,” he said.

Passive solar energy meaning using sunlight without help from something like a solar panel or a pump or a fan. The height itself takes care of most heating and cooling needs.

“Natural ventilation,” Pal explained. “Thereby there is a current of air without any energy.”

And without any energy bills either. Pal was so passionate about this green design that he submitted a building permit in the early ‘90s for a home unlike any other in the area.

But not everyone was so thrilled. The city argued this building would not meet code. That’s when Pal went to City Hall.

“The city itself failed to read their own codebook,” he said.

“He was very creative in how he read the codes and he found those spaces where we didn’t realize there were gaps. And he maneuvered through them,” said George Worley, the city planning manager.

It gets technical here, but basically the code had some gray areas, like defining the maximum building height by stories, not feet.

“There are partial floors, which the building code considers mezzanines and didn’t count toward the number of stories,” Worley said.

“Cooling tower is exempted. Observation tower, exempted,” Pal said.

It was a lengthy battle, and the tower is evidence of who won. But even though Worley agrees the building is fascinating, he said codes are there for a reason. People want to know what to expect when they move in.

“Much of the neighborhood was up in arms because they didn’t want anything that tall,” Worley said.

“How come everybody is building 35 feet tall home, and that man is building 124 feet tower?” Pal said, recalling the criticism he received.

He said because he didn’t want to be like everyone else.

“I have to get it done not only because nobody did it before, but it has got some benefit and advantage and lessons.”

The city learned a lesson, too. They adopted a new code in 2003 that really cleared things up. No more houses in Prescott can go to new heights like this one.

But the Nest will not be knocked down. Pal is selling it for $1.5 million.

He imagines the buyer will be someone who appreciates the architecture and doesn’t mind getting a few curious visitors now and then.

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