History of the City Bird

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​The city of Phoenix was given its name by its founders because it had sprung from from the ruins of a former civilization that had vanished into history. As a result, the Phoenix bird became the official city symbol.  Read more about that process on this page.

We also invite you to visit our City History webpage for more information about our city was created, or contact the Communications Office at 262-7177. 

The Myth

The phoenix bird symbolizes immortality, resurrection and life after death, and in ancient Greek and Egyptian mythology it is associated with the sun god.

According to the Greeks, the bird lives in Arabia, near a cool well. Every morning at dawn, the sun god would stop his chariot to listen to the bird sing a beautiful song while it bathed in the well.

Only one phoenix exists at a time, and so when the bird felt its death was near, every 500 to 1,461 years, it would build a nest of aromatic wood and set it on fire. The bird then was consumed by the flames.

A new phoenix sprang forth from the pyre. It embalmed the ashes of its predecessor in an egg of myrrh and flew with it to Heliopolis, the "city of the sun," where the egg was deposited on the altar of the sun god. In Egypt, it was usually depicted as a heron, but in classic literature as a peacock or an eagle.

The Evolution of the Phoenix Symbol

Over the years, Phoenix had more than 30 birds connected with the city. Many departments designed their own unique bird, which they displayed on municipal signs, stationery, city vehicles and employee uniforms.

In the fall of 1986, the city decided to establish a more contemporary, unified graphics program to present a clear image to the public, including having one phoenix bird symbol represent the city. Additionally, the city could save $50,000 each year by standardizing its stationery, patches, signs and business forms.

A citizen's committee was appointed to organize a design competition for a new graphic symbol for the city. The winning artist would receive a $25,000 commission to write and design a graphic standards manual to govern the use of the logo.

The Great Phoenix Bird Design Competition was launched in March 1987. The contest rules stated that the symbol must include the legendary phoenix bird and the words city of Phoenix. Most of the 277 entries, which included a total of 2,500 35mm slides, were from Valley individuals and design firms, but some applicants were from as far away as Surrey, England. The entries came in the form of bird sketches, paintings, colored market drawings and even a needlepoint.

Initially, 10 semi-finalists were selected and were given one month to put together a formal presentation showing how their designs could be applied in different city usages and each semi-finalist received a $1,000 stipend. They made their presentations in June 1987 to the nine-member Phoenix Bird Design Selection Panel at the Phoenix Civic Plaza in front of an audience of several hundred people.

Phoenix Bird Design Finalists

Four finalists gave presentations to the Phoenix City Council - Kottler Caldera Group of Phoenix; Hubbard and Hubbard, Inc.; James Rowley of Scottsdale; and Smit Ghormley Sanft of Phoenix.

From there, the vote was taken to the public, the real client.  Ballots were printed showing the four finalists' symbols and were distributed to libraries, major grocery store chains, public buildings and banks. Ballot boxes were placed at the city's annual 4th of July celebration, the Great American Race and Summer Sunday events downtown. A 1-900 number was set up for television viewers to call to register their votes and a ballot was printed in the Sunday Arizona Republic, Phoenix water bills, and the city employee newsletter.

More than 20,000 ballots were received, with voters ranking their selection in order of preference. The Phoenix City Council made the final decision based on the public balloting results. The winning entry was a design by the firm of Smit Ghormley Sanft (which later became Smit Ghormley Lofgreen).  The city's Law Department conducted a trademark search to make sure that no other registered trademarks were around that would be confusingly similar to the four final designs. The city then obtained a federal copyright and a federal trademark registration for the new bird design.

Four years after the process began, Phoenix received and distributed 350 graphic standards manuals that established a unified way to implement the new phoenix bird.