B Y H A N N A H G L A S S T O N
A CONCRETE FOUNDATION and a small pile of red brick are the only remains of a 74-year-old bungalow at 928 North First Ave. in the historic West University Neighborhood.
Gone is the home's deep porch, maple flooring, built-in dining room hutch, arched doorways, colorful kitchen tile and, of course, its tenants.
In their place will soon stand a new 2,500-square-foot library and underground vault filled with a collection of documents covering Arizona and United States postal history. That's because the Postal History Foundation next door purchased the house in 1993 for $89,000 to build something called the Slusser Memorial Library, a $500,000 project.
Currently the Postal History building houses the only contract philatelic station in the country--a place for hobbyists and the public to purchase stamps from the federal government. And it's headquarters for a large educational outreach program which needed more room, says the foundation's executive director, Betsy Towle, who led the fight to demolish the neighboring house rather than restore it.
When foundation officials first proposed demolishing the house in 1993, the strongly preservationist West University Neighborhood Association (WUNA) thought it was "a terrible idea," says Anne Graham-Bergin, a neighborhood resident and attorney who intervened for the neighborhood in a court case regarding the demolition.
"We told them we were not in the business of knocking buildings down," Graham-Bergin says, adding she wrote Towle offering to help the foundation pursue a Heritage Fund Grant which would have provided up to 50 percent in construction costs for structural renovation of the old house.
"They just said, 'Forget it, what we're really interested in doing is knocking down the building.' They didn't buy it to restore it, they bought it to knock it down, and that's been the whole issue about this case," says Graham-Bergin.
"We were not interested in preserving a house, but in preserving our collection," Towle admits. "The collection could not have been preserved there unless we spent a ridiculous amount of money. The building was in absolutely deplorable condition. It had termite damage and the floors would not support the weight of the materials. Everything was bad for the preservation of literature," she says.
Graham-Bergin says that's right--it was a house, not a library.
In February, following a grueling two-year process which involved the neighborhood's historic advisory board, the Tucson-Pima Historical Commission and numerous city council hearings, the Postal History Foundation sued the city for a demolition permit. Development lawyer Si Schorr represented the foundation in its successful effort to ignore the wishes of the city and the neighborhood. "We ended up spending $50,000 and an untold amount in construction costs," frowns Towle. The city picked up the tab for $18,200 in attorney's fees awarded by the court.
Architect Les Wallach, who designed the library, has some of his own history rooted in the neighborhood--he bought his first home there in 1974. He says, based on his client's needs, the old house could not have been used.
The bungalow, he says, was not well built, and wasn't of any particular historic value, since it didn't add to the "texture and fabric of the part of the neighborhood which it was in." He calls the block "compromised" because of the few homes left and the huge Arizona Commons apartment complex situated there. Had the project been one block away, he says, he wouldn't have touched it.
Wallach says calling the house historically significant based on its structure "would be like calling a tract home historic in 15 or 20 years. Its age doesn't make it important."
Local preservation architect Bob Vint doesn't buy the complaints about the poor condition of the house or Wallach's views on the state of the block.
"There's no building on earth that cannot be fixed," insists Vint. "You have to hold the line somewhere. It's not just the individual building, it's the context. Very few buildings are outstanding enough to say let's save it because it's a great building. What you're preserving is the historic sense of place these buildings add to their context. Old buildings are every bit as important as postage stamps. In fact I think they're a lot more important."
"We're not just talking stamps here, we're talking history," Towle says, in justifying the new library intended to house a collection she says is the largest of its type west of the Mississippi. "We're not interested in destroying history, we want to preserve history. In order to preserve that, it (the library collection) needs to be in decent housing. We're not into bulldozing everything in West University. There has to be room for both existences here."
Marilyn Massino, a 17-year resident of the neighborhood and past-president of WUNA, says although she appreciates the work of the foundation, she doesn't believe it was right to rip down a viable house in the neighborhood.
"Anybody in any neighborhood would not want the house next door torn down for an institution," she says, adding the loss takes away from the safety of the neighborhood. "At night no one is sleeping in that house. You don't have the lights on, you don't have the movement." She says the feel of the neighborhood is eroded by each home lost. "You lose the friendly face next door to borrow sugar from."
Towle says WUNA should worry more about upgrading the neighborhood "rather than worrying about every little house. They should worry about the crack dealers."
Obviously the neighborhood doesn't see it that way. And despite WUNA's efforts, the new building, which will be faced on the street side with rock and one window--what Graham-Bergin calls "a bunker"--will be built without historical flourishes. Wallach says he's done a lot of work to make the library fit into the neighborhood, but it won't have those details. He believes attempting to make the library blend in would dilute the historical value of buildings already there.
With this demolition, Towle, a lay historian with expertise in the delivery of mail by railroad, thinks the foundation falls on the right side of history. "WUNA would rather have (the house) rented out as substandard housing than have a modern building in its place, just because it's history. What's history? Where is the room for history of the future if you don't tear down the history of the past?" she asks, apparently sincerely.
"The buildings themselves are history," argues preservationist Vint. "This town will never develop a sense of history if we continually remake ourselves in the image of the current fashion."
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