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To Preserve And Protect 

Two Preservation Projects Strive To Repeat History In And Around Downtown.

ART RESTORER ERMA Duran, a third-generation Tucsonan, thinks that her home town is finally beginning to sit up and notice its history.

"In the last 10 years, there's more historic awareness than before," said Duran, who will head up art restoration efforts at the Fox Tucson Theatre. "It's coming alive, especially downtown, where we're bringing back the living cultural traditions of Tucson."

While Tucson still routinely prizes roads over history (witness the ongoing battle over the St. Philip's Church Plaza on River Road), the town is scoring a few small preservation victories. The Cheyney House, a threatened property in the historic El Presidio neighborhood, was recently saved by a pair of intrepid neighbors. Marty McCune, the city's historic program administrator, nominated its rescuers, Margaret Hardy and JoAnne Rogers, for a historic preservation prize, saying admiringly, "They put up the money to buy the house from Carmen Dolny." Saved from possible demolition, the house has been resold to a couple intent on rehab.

And on the eve of national Preservation Week, May 14 to 20, two local restoration projects are serving up arts events inspired by their historic architecture: The Fox Tucson Theatre is staging a gala benefit on Saturday, May 13, to raise money for its rehab. ZUZI! Move It Dance Company will perform this weekend in the theatre its members have been restoring at the Historic YWCA.

Different as they are, the two theatre projects illustrate the twin preservation principles of historic renovation and adaptive reuse. The Fox, rescued by the nonprofit Fox Tucson Theatre Foundation, is to be restored as closely as possible to its 1930s movie-palace glamour. Just as in the old days, it will screen movies, on modern equipment discreetly installed, and stage small performances, says Herb Stratford, the indefatigable artist who heads up the foundation. By contrast, the Historic YWCA theatre being spruced up wasn't a theatre at all in the building's youth: it was a swimming pool.

Adaptive reuse, notes McCune, "is one way of keeping historic buildings. If you don't find a way to reuse them, you're going to lose them."


THE FOX TUCSON Theater, the Congress Street landmark newly emerged from its 26-year abandonment behind plywood, celebrates its 70th birthday with a gala benefit evening this Saturday. Dinner, an auction and dancing are on the menu, along with a movie, The Thin Man, a vintage William Powell and Myrna Loy vehicle from 1934. Patrons are encouraged to wear gowns and dinner jackets to lend the celebration period chic. It will be held outdoors at La Placita Village, as the theater itself is not projected to re-open for business for several years. Stratford and company have done yeomen labor in the last months freeing the place of decades-old debris. Nuts-and-bolts restoration has not yet begun, but the building itself is in surprisingly good shape.

"The Fox is very well preserved," enthuses art restorer Duran. "It's a relic. Aesthetically and historically, it's one of Tucson's treasures."

Duran ought to know. She's a respected pro who worked with the teams that restored such local architectural jewels as San Xavier Mission and the Tucson High auditorium. Then there are her labors on Old World antiquities such as the Roman Forum and assorted Italian churches, under the direction of the Italian masters who restored Michelangelo's paintings in the Sistine Chapel. So when Duran talks about the glories of the Fox, it behooves the city to listen.

The Fox's spectacular ceiling painting, she says, has only minor damage from a roof leak. (Repairing the roof is the Foundation's top priority.) A rare Southwest art deco design, not unlike the wall decorations at the Hotel Congress, it's a sunburst pattern still radiant in "bright purple, ochres, greens and oranges." Below, the theatre's side walls are lined with golden flutes a dozen feet tall, topped off with art deco lights. Duran, whose mother occasionally filled in at the Fox box office in the old days, is positively ecstatic about the flutes.

"They're the original gold leaf," she says excitedly. "Very few places anymore use gold leaf. It's a metal, very expensive."

And it's in excellent shape, unlike the gold leaf she encountered at San Xavier, damaged by centuries of candle smoke and soot. She experimentally tried "a real quick cleaning -- and it cleaned up great."

More time-consuming will be the restoration of the art deco paintings on the wooden side panels of every aisle seat in the 1300-seat theatre. A benighted 1950s renovation buried the exuberant '30s paintings under a layer of institutional green paint. Duran took one seat home and removed the green with Chinese paper and chemicals. Underneath, intact, was the painting of a comet soaring like a Hollywood movie spotlight.

Duran can't dive into the project just yet. There's the little matter of money. Stratford said the foundation will close on the building this month, snapping it up for the bargain basement price of $250,000, but he estimates restoration costs could go as high as $7 million. A good chunk of that will be offset by money from the Rio Nuevo South project, and, Stratford hopes, with in-kind donations of good and services. Meantime, historic preservation advocates like McCune are already relishing what a refurbished Fox will do for the city.

"It's definitely an asset for downtown as an entertainment venue," she says. "It has a prominent location on Congress Street. The Rialto at one end and the Fox (at the other) anchors the street. They are very different theatres that will be used in very different ways.

"So many people in the community grew up going to the Fox; it's part of our community memory. And its Pueblo Deco style is very unusual -- it's a very special type of interior architecture."


THE HISTORIC YWCA opened in 1930, the same year as the Fox, but its architectural style is quite different. Designed by Annie Graham Rockfellow, Tucson's first -- and forgotten -- female architect and a YWCA member, it's in Rockfellow's trademark Mission Revival style, all columns and porticoes and courtyards and interior dark-wood finishes.

The building, a contributing property in the West University Historic District, is occupied by a number of non-profits. The derelict theatre in the back of the building had lain fallow for several years until ZUZI! Move It Dance Company moved in last fall. Home to a series of arts troupes over the last decade, from Tenth Street Danceworks to One in Ten Theatre to Barbea Williams Dance to Orts Theatre of Dance to Millennium Theatre, the space had been trashed by the time the ZUZI! dancers inked their lease.

"We loaded up a dumpster 20-feet long," says co-artistic director Nancy Mellan. "It was filled with debris. It was vacant and neglected."

The rest of the building is well cared for and historically accurate, but the theatre was not in the original Rockfellow design. A 1929 newspaper article describing the architectural plans notes that the first floor will include "an enclosed, well ventilated swimming pool, lockers and showers."

That pool, now long gone, gave way to a theatre.

"People will come in and say, 'Oh, this used to be the pool office,' " Mellan says.

With the help of teams of unexpected volunteers ("People came out of the woodwork"), ZUZI! dancers unloaded the piled-up junk, lightened the walls from black to white, moved a wall to create a studio space behind the stage, and installed a danceable floor over the concrete. In six weeks they brought the theatre from unusable to performance-ready, staging a Winter Solstice concert in mid-December.

"We're thrilled to be there," Mellan says. "We've been working very hard. It's nice to be in our own home."

Since they moved in, the building itself has unexpectedly become an inspiration to their art. Co-artistic director Nanette Robinson has been developing a storytelling dance, "Contadoras," about women's relationships with other women. Still a work-in-progress, the dance alternates movement and spoken word. While working on this woman-centered piece, the dancers learned that the building they now called home had been designed by a female architect (see "Remembering Rockfellow" in the January 27, 2000, issue of Tucson Weekly) and that it once housed young working women. They realized that the structure's history was of a piece with their work.

"To know that women lived upstairs and to understand that a woman designed the building is so meaningful," Mellan says. "We have a dream of doing a site-specific piece upstairs. There's a history upstairs and we look forward to learning more.

"And our performance is in historic Preservation Week! We have such a sense of being in that building, of having a home."





ZUZI! Move It Dance Company performs the modern dance concert New Releases at 7:30 p.m. Friday through Sunday, May 12 through 14, at the Historic YWCA Theatre, 738 N. Fifth Ave., at University Boulevard. Choreographers include Nanette Robinson, Nancy Mellan, Wendy Joy, Elizabeth Breck and Greg Colburn. Musician Jeremy Nasta contributes percussion and keyboards for "Contadoras." Tickets are $10, $7 for seniors and students. For reservations and information, call 629-0237.

The Fox Tucson Theatre Foundation hosts a 70th birthday benefit bash at 6 p.m. Saturday, May 13, outdoors at La Placita Village, 110 S. Church Ave. A $75 ticket to the '30s glamour event includes dinner, an auction, a screening of The Thin Man and dancing to live music from the Kings of Pleasure. Movie lovers on a limited budget can enjoy the film and dancing for $10. The movie screens at 9 p.m. Tickets are available at Jerry's Lee Ho Market, Casa Video, Caliente Home Accents, Metroform Limited, and the Eric Firestone Gallery. All proceeds benefit the restoration of the Fox Theatre. For more information, call 696-2742.

More by Margaret Regan

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