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Even though it's old and made of adobe, the Marist College building may not be worth saving

Knowing full well that it might get me permanently barred from the warm, fuzzy wing of the Liberal Club, I must say this about the Marist College building in downtown Tucson:

1. Not all old buildings are automatically historic.

2. Not all historic buildings are automatically deserving of preservation.

The place is a dump, and not all that attractive as dumps go. If a meteor were to hit it, it would do about $200,000 worth of improvements. And, oh yeah, people keep referring to it as "Arizona's only surviving three-story adobe." There's a reason for that—all of the other ones have fallen down already.

In the past few weeks, the Tucson Weekly's Tim Vanderpool has done his usual masterful job of explaining the background and specifics of Tucson city government possibly coming to the rescue of the abandoned, crumbling building ("Marist Tempest," July 26, and "Marist Maneuvers," Aug. 9).

The people behind the preservation and restoration effort have their reasons, and I don't doubt their sincerity in the matter. I just don't think it makes a whole lot of sense.

I do not know everything (or anything, for that matter) about adobe, so I called Robert Barnes, the longtime owner of Old Pueblo Adobe. For quite a long time (until his land along Interstate 10 north of Cortaro Road was taken by eminent domain for freeway expansion), his company manufactured adobe bricks and assisted in the construction of adobe structures throughout Southern Arizona. He says the fact that Marist is a three-story building is more of an oddity than anything else.

"The materials to make adobe are plentiful in this part of the world, and it's a good building material. The important thing is that there has always been lots and lots of open land. There was never any reason to build up. This isn't New York or London. In terms of labor and cost, it just never made any sense to build more than a one- or two-story structure."

Then there is the matter of architectural physics. Unlike the modern steel-and-glass structures that utilize cleverly designed truss and support systems to allow them to reach toward the sky, adobe buildings have certain limitations, structurally speaking.

"Once you start getting up past a few stories," explains Barnes, "you have to make the bottom floor and the foundation extra-thick to bear the load of the higher floors. It just doesn't make sense. The extra adobe that goes into shoring up the base could be used to build another room in a house or another building altogether."

Further complicating the matter in the case of the Marist building is that, since its rebuilding would be part of a historic-preservation effort, any restoration would have to involve the use of original building materials. (In other words, you couldn't put a metal skeleton inside the building and then resurface the outside to make it look like it did 100 years ago.)

Barnes, who is now semi-retired and owns a small cattle ranch outside of St. David, recommends a prudent approach. "When I was still in the adobe business, we bid on some of those proposed projects during the Rio Nuevo frenzy. They had architects who were coming up with things that simply don't exist and aren't possible. It was crazy.

"I would recommend that before they go ahead with anything, they spend $25,000 on a detailed assessment of the building and get a solid understanding of the adobe-building code, which is pretty strict. It might save the city a lot of money in the long run."

I wasn't around during the 1960s when the city razed a downtown barrio in the name of urban renewal. When I was growing up around that time in Los Angeles, I heard all the stories of how the money-über-alles crowd had destroyed an entire long-standing Latino community just to put up Dodger Stadium. (On that subject, I recommend Ry Cooder's masterpiece album, Chavez Ravine.)

The fact that an entire neighborhood was wiped away, and all we got out of it was the Tucson Convention Center, certainly should give decision-makers pause before they plunge ahead on future projects. But that history should not serve as an automatic and permanent stop sign for reasonable urban-renewal efforts, or as a carte-blanche excuse for preserving every building that managed to stand long enough to get sort-of old.

I occasionally attend Mass at Holy Family Church, about a mile north of downtown. Often at Mass, the reader will mention that there will be a second collection that day for St. Vincent de Paul or the bishop's appeal. I'm always happy to throw in a few bucks. They've never once held a second collection to keep the Marist College building standing; I'm pretty sure they know what would happen if they did.

Through all the head-spinning talk of making the Marist building into a three-story restaurant or a boutique hotel comes the main question. The Catholic Church isn't willing to spend one penny on this project. Could it be that, for once, the business side of the church actually knows what it's doing?

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