MESA, Ariz. (AP) — The wheels of time grind slowly at Buckhorn Baths.
Each hour, a few more grains of dust settle on the yellowing guest books.
Each day, a little more sunlight filters through the cracks that slowly grow in ceilings, walls and silent hallways.
Each month, our collective memory of what this place was grows a bit more dim.
Time is at work despite what the clock in the bathhouse seems to say, the clock now frozen straight up at noon — or is it midnight? — and 21 seconds.
Time may be what Buckhorn has the most of — and the least of.
Mesa is working with the estate of the late owner, Alice Sliger, to buy the 15-acre site on the northwestern corner of Main Street and Recker Road. It is regarded as one of the most important, and endangered, examples of midcentury roadside architecture in the country.
Mesa voters, some perhaps fearful that Buckhorn could fall to the bulldozers of redevelopment, approved the purchase last November when they authorized $70 million in spending for the city park system.
Mayor Scott Smith said last week the talks are progressing and a deal could be on the table soon. The city, he said, wants to make sure environmental issues are manageable before signing a check.
But the bond election and real-estate negotiations are pieces of cake compared with the toil that would ensue if the sale goes through.
Mesa architect Ron Peters and Vic Linoff, who are among the Valley's leading advocates of historic preservation, tried to get a sense of what that might entail when they led a tour of the motel recently.
Their guests were participants in the Arizona Historic Preservation Conference, which was at the Hilton Phoenix/Mesa. They were bused from the hotel to the Buckhorn, then to the downtown headquarters of Visit Mesa, the city's tourism-promotion agency.
They received detailed architectural drawings of the Buckhorn complex done by Peters after the 2010 death of 103-year-old Alice Sliger, who ran the place for most of the 20th century.
And they were asked to think about what could be done to make the Buckhorn useful.
Ideas range from using part of the 15-plus acres as a youth-sports complex, to a museum, to full restoration of the motel and its famed bath house, which so soothed the aching muscles of big-league ballplayers that the Buckhorn is credited by some as being the birthplace of the Cactus League.
"I think the Buckhorn is a regional treasure," Peters said. "It just happens to be in Mesa, but it's a regional — it's a state treasure."
"We made the same argument for the diving lady," Linoff said, referring to a famous Main Street neon sign that was restored this year. "It's here in Mesa and that gives us some responsibility for stewardship, but it belongs to everybody."
The Buckhorn's national connections are plain enough to see, Linoff said, in the thousands of names and addresses in its meticulously kept guest books.
Those books alone, he said, could fuel years of research, some aimed at determining whether and when a young John F. Kennedy visited in order to tend to his war wounds.
Before the Buckhorn can become what Mesa wants it to be, Linoff and Peters said, several things have to happen once the sale is consummated.
"The minute the property is acquired we are already working on making arrangements to clean the place out," Linoff said. That will be necessary in order to determine the condition of the buildings.
The cleanup task will be immense despite the fact that Mesa resident Sharon Brossett, a former caretaker for Alice Sliger, has been working since Alice died to sort the Buckhorn's treasures — and its junk.
Linoff said the stuff, perhaps 10 semi loads, will be taken to a central facility and cataloged. Some will go to the Mesa Historical Museum, some back to the Buckhorn for use in exhibits, and a lot could be sold.
The Arizona Museum of Natural History and perhaps other experts will help appraise the material, which ranges from collections of guns, barbed wire and steer horns to Indian relics and original paintings by the Buckhorn's two resident artists.
Ted Sliger's massive collection of about 450 animals — stuffed by Sliger himself — will remain on site as part of the museum.
Fundraising will be crucial because Linoff believes the total project, including the purchase, restoration and what preservationists like to call "adaptive re-use," could come to $10 million. The purchase price won't be publicly known until the City Council is asked to approve a specific deal.
Linoff is among those who would like to see the hot mineral-spring baths restored, but he fears the county Health Department would balk.
"Hundreds of baseball players and celebrities soaked in those tubs and there is no evidence that anyone ever died of being here at the Buckhorn," Linoff said.
Whatever happens, Mesa residents and other interested parties will have a say, Linoff said. Once it's in public hands, he expects a series of community meetings and design workshops to solicit ideas.
At the very least, he hopes the massive neon sign that served as a beacon for desert travelers will again light the night.
And maybe — just maybe — the frozen hands of that bathhouse clock will someday measure time again.