Tucson Progressive

Pamela Powers, a progressive voice for Arizona

Historic preservation: Is history becoming fashionable in Tucson?

Adobe casita in downtown Tucson. (Photo Credit: Pamela Powers)

When we first went house-hunting in Tucson in the early 1980s, our realtor thought we were crazy because we wanted a house with architectural style and wooden floors. Having lived in Columbus’ city core in an old Victorian-era brick double, we didn’t realize what a tall order this was in Tucson, our new home.

We spent several weeks driving around older neighborhoods in July in our AC-free Toyota Corolla with Judy (our chain-smoking realtor) and our baby daughter searching for style, affordability, and a house worth the sweat equity we were going to have to invest. We finally settled on a California Bungalow handyman special in the Pie Allen Neighborhood, priced at $34,000– the cost of some new vehicles today.

If Judy thought we were crazy while we were house-hunting, she probably really thought we were nuts when we bought that place, but we saw style and potential in that little house with the inviting front porch, the volcanic rock columns, the cozy fireplace flanked by wooden built-ins, and the large back yard– ready for a swing set and sandbox. Little did we know we were downtown pioneers before downtown was hip.

Thirty years later, many other urban pioneers have joined the struggle to breathe life into Tucson’s older neighborhoods and help downtown become livable and even fashionable.

At yesterday’s City Council Meeting, historic preservationists in Tucson won a major battle against the mini-dorm industry. The Council approved the Neighborhood Preservation Zone (NPZ) overlay for the Jefferson Park Neighborhood. The NPZ will restrict mini-dorm development by limiting the scale of new construction, making it more difficult to build a second story and limiting the size of a building to no more than 35 percent of the lot size. This is the second NPZ the Council has approved– the first being the Feldman Neighborhood NPZ in 2009, which developers are fighting.

This week, Tucson is hosting historic preservation conference, which will include a heritage discussion on Wednesday, June 22 at Hotel Congress.

Also, this week, a new guide to historic homes in Tucson was published.

Next week, at the June 28 City Council Meeting, the Council will consider a proposal to amend the sign code protect and preserve historic landmark signage older than 1975. Although I am a bit concerned about inclusion of “transitional” signage between 1961-1974 in this amendment, I think it is a worthwhile effort to protect the funky neon signs that mark Tucson’s past as a motor hotel haven.

With this volume of preservation activity, will Tucson save its unique architecture and sense of place? I hope so.  I don’t want developers to make Tucson into a place where there is no there there. I still remember the July thunderstorm clouds gathering over the old courthouse’s mosaic dome and the reflection of the Tucson Inn sign in the swimming pool that night in 1981 when we first visited Tucson.

Wooden doors in downtown Tucson. (Photo Credit: Pamela Powers)

Crumbling adobe home in downtown Tucson. (Photo Credit: Pamela Powers)

El Rapido sign in downtown Tucson. (Photo Credit: Pamela Powers)

Fireplace with nichos in an old adobe home. (Photo Credit: Pamela Powers)

The old Corner Market in downtown awaits TLC. (Photo Credit: Pamela Powers)

Inviting entrance to restored downtown adobe home. (Photo Credit: Pamela Powers)

5 comments on “Historic preservation: Is history becoming fashionable in Tucson?

  1. shane
    June 22, 2011

    This is good news…and some great photos!


  2. Jim Hannley
    June 22, 2011

    Ah, yes, the Tucson Inn. I knew that place when I was going to the U of A. Many debutants would hesitate to agree to an extended stay if that was to be in the Sigma Nu house. So the evening was enjoyed together at the Tucson Inn. It was cheap, it was pretty clean and it was close.
    I remember my first house. I bought it with Trade Readjustment money. When my mom, a realtor heard about my windfall, she guided me to the shanty-style stucco on frame house in Pueblo Gardens. I bought that for $22,5000, I think. I sold it 8 years later for a substantial amount more. I don’t know if those Dell Webb homes there merit preservation. They are just historical. Very utilitarian, as they were built for the Southern Pacific railroad workers at the freight yard nearby.
    So that gets us to this sign code or historical code amendment. We don’t want to open the policy up to an extent that there is no unanimity on preserving the sign. When one carefully examines the criteria for preservation, we find more than 100 post-1960 signs which do not merit preservation if common sense were to prevail. But that’s the sticky wicket. How do you quantify something which is a matter of taste? I submit it can be done. You can poll people if necessary, but I think in many cases you would have a hard time finding someone in favor of preservation. The junk is obvious to all.
    We feel that it might be reasonable to consider accepting signs as old as 1965 under the given criteria and to make some exceptions for signs as new as 1974. There should be Mayor and Council oversight for any reproduction, any relocation and any sign more than 20 feet tall. It is unwise to leave too much authority in the hands of the Development Services Director.


  3. Jim Hannley
    June 22, 2011

    Your photos are awesome. Do these homes deserve preservation? Who wants to live in them the way they are? Do they have to be gentrified; newly remodeled kitchen and bath, etc.? Makes you wonder, why preserve a sign when what it represents is long gone; such as the business for which it was made. Does it become art? I like the idea of a sign park; where parents can stroll with their children and reminisce about a place no longer there, a time which seems quaint today.


  4. David
    June 23, 2011

    Pamela, what Email address should I use to send you info from Shirley’s campaign?
    Great post, BTW!


  5. Pingback: Tucson Chamber Wants Image Change: What Will Become of the ‘Old Pueblo’? | Tucson Progressive

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The Tucson Progressive: Pamela J. Powers

I stand on the side of Love. I believe in kindness to all creatures on Earth and the inherent self-worth of all individuals–not just people who agree with me or look like me.

Widespread economic and social injustice prompted me to become a candidate for the Arizona House, representing Legislative District 9 in the 2016 election.

My platform focused on economic reforms to grow Arizona’s economy, establish a state-based public bank, fix our infrastructure, fully fund public education, grow local small businesses and community banks, and put people back to work at good-paying jobs.

In the Arizona House, I was a strong voice for fiscal responsibility a moratorium on corporate tax breaks until the schools were fully funded, increased cash assistance to the poor, expansion of maternal healthcare benefits, equal rights, choice, unions, education at all levels and protecting our water supply.

After three terms, I retired from the Arizona Legislature in January 2023 but will continue to blog and produce my podcast “A View from the Left Side.”

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