ON THE AFTERNOON of March 21, 1893, Hiram Sanford Stevens walked into his wife's bedroom and shot her in the head.

Petra Santa Cruz Stevens, who later said a Spanish comb in her hair may have saved her life, was wounded but still alive. But her husband grabbed a second gun, an old Army pistol, jammed it against his own forehead and pulled the trigger. He died instantly.

The dead man had been one of the town's best-known and most successful citizens: A county supervisor and former territorial delegate to the U.S. Congress, he was a prosperous merchant with a hand in Army provisioning, ranching, mining, sheepherding and a hotel business. Stevens had built his handsome adobe home back in 1865, along fashionable Calle Real (Main Street), and it had become a premier meeting place for the frontier town's movers and groovers. The couple's adopted daughter, Eliza, remembered it years later as a place where good food and wine were served, where "everything was in abundance."

Nowadays that alimentary history echoes through the thick adobe walls, wood floors and 14-foot viga ceilings in the restored house, which also includes portions of the old Duffield House to the north. The place was retrofitted as a restaurant in 1983 by a young and ambitious chef named Janos Wilder, its 125 seats laid out in the Stevenses' and Duffields' elegant rooms and on a patio. Ever since, it's operated as Janos, a high-end restaurant that's attracted national attention, winning such plum culinary awards as four stars from Mobil and serving some of the most critically acclaimed food in Tucson, to well-heeled tourists and locals alike.

Some say the ghost of Stevens still haunts the room where he died, now a tiny, four-table dining room just off the central zaguan, the wide hallway characteristic of Territorial Sonoran houses. That could be. Because the Tucson Museum of Art and Janos restaurant right now are embroiled in a bitter dispute over the venerable old home, and if the passions raised by the tempest don't exactly equal the murderous rage of Hiram Stevens on that long-ago day, they sure come close.

THE FRACAS STARTED last spring, when the TMA ordered Janos to vacate the house at the end of its current lease, in August 1998. The museum, which controls the Stevens House as well as four other old houses on its historic block, intends to use the building in the short term as gallery space for its growing collection, installing in its gracious spaces pre-Columbian, Spanish colonial and Mexican art and folk arts. One day in the future, when the museum expands even further, the house is to be fitted up as a period house museum.

Chef Wilder, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Rebecca, has achieved not only prominence but prosperity by serving his innovative Southwestern cuisine in the charming historic house. Estimates of his gross revenues are about $1.4 million annually. Naturally, he wants to stay put. If he's forced out, he says, he'll most likely rebuild in the suburban foothills, closer to the tourist resorts.

The City Council, anxious to keep a popular tourist attraction that generates some $29,000 a year in taxes, jumped into the fray. In February the council had given the TMA use of large city-owned parking lot south of the Stevens House, a gift on which the museum's expansion plans partly depend, and some council members felt betrayed by the museum's April announcement that Janos had to go. In May they registered their displeasure by temporarily holding up the museum's funds--TMA gets about $86,000 a year from the city, a small portion of an annual budget that in fiscal 1997 is $2.1 million.

Two weeks ago, the council offered a compromise proposal that would allow Janos to stay in the Stevens House. Janos now pays the museum about $50,000 a year in rent. The city plan would leverage the expectation of future rental income into a loan that would finance the construction of a new gallery building. The new structure would be sandwiched in between the present museum and Casa Cordova, another historic building on the site. As of press time, the museum's board had not yet responded officially to the proposal, but museum director Robert Yassin called it "preposterous" in an interview last week. Burt Lazar, president of the TMA board of directors, said, "The space the city is offering is clearly not a trade-off."

YASSIN SUMS UP the issue as the "public good versus private profit," but the clash goes far beyond the competing interests of art and commerce. The fight over Janos has churned up opposing opinions on everything from the best kind of historic preservation to the rights of neighborhoods, from downtown revitalization to class and race tensions in the city, to the inherent tendency of institutions to expand. Ironically, the fight is intensified because the City of Tucson made a catastrophic decision in the late 1960s to level some 250 venerable buildings in its historic heart.

Image "Tucson has very little historic architecture left," Yassin says. "We've lost a great deal of it. It's incumbent on us to ensure that we don't lose anymore. A restaurant is a risky use. You can have grease fires. Restaurants burn down all the time. This is not a new building. That concerns me...We've got to take care of what we have."

Some local activists vehemently disagree. Ken Scoville, a local historian, columnist and tour guide who's campaigning to save Janos, says that on his travels to other cities, he frequently dines in restaurants in historic buildings. For him a restaurant is an "adaptive re-use" that keeps the past alive. He believes the museum's plans will snuff out the vitality of a house that's now a part of the city's contemporary life.

"Sitting at the bar, looking around, it's the last place left where you can get an idea of 1860s Tucson life," Scoville said. "With velvet ropes and a repetitive docent, it's just not the same...I hate to see everything embalmed."

The museum director, who estimates that up to 80,000 people a year now visit the museum complex, believes his historic-block plan eventually will be a bigger tourist draw than Janos has ever been. (Janos attracts about 25,000 diners a year.) The goal, Yassin said, is to make the museum and historic block a "must-see" attraction during a typical four-day tourist stay, and a destination for Tucsonans of all incomes. Siding with Yassin, who puts a populist spin on his efforts, two Hispanic council members say the restaurant is an elite preserve that keeps a piece of Tucson history out of reach of their constituents. Councilmen Steve Leal and José Ibarra both applaud the move to put Hispanic and Mexican art on permanent display, hoping it will draw in the minorities who have been historically underserved by the museum.

"I would love for Janos to stay downtown, but this is a private business," Ibarra says. "On the Southside people have never heard of Janos...(The museum) said they need more space, more exhibits that would attract a lot of interest in the community. Now it's in storage. Instead, we see BMWs pulling up to Janos."

But such downtown proponents as Councilwoman Molly McKasson see the high-end restaurant as a key component of a healthy economic mix. As Pete Chalupsky, of the city's Office for Economic Development, says, "I hate to use the term 'white flight' but we're trying to keep the wealth from moving to the suburbs."

Appalled neighborhood activists like Chris Carroll, who grew up down the street and now serves as president of the El Presidio Neighborhood Council, say the museum's plan will deaden the block after dark, making the old house still another of the city's endless institutional buildings that go idle after five. And Carroll questions the value of the art the museum would display in the Stevens House. A UA English professor who once served as acting director of TMA, Carroll argues the Mexican and Spanish colonial art "is a little better than the stuff in the stores down on Park Avenue. Most of that is decorator stuff." He says he's "deeply suspicious of the museum board," which has a spotty record in the neighborhood. In the early '70s, the board wanted to knock down some of the historic houses it now touts. It also built a bad museum building that is willfully disrespectful of the historic character of its surrounding neighborhood. Carroll says it's typical of administrators "to have hopes and dreams for bigger and bigger," but he cautions that bigger is not necessarily better.

ROBERT YASSIN SAT in his office at the museum last week, a scrapbook of historic photos of the Stevens House on his desk, alongside copies of newspaper articles condemning his decision to ask Janos to leave. He's frustrated and angry that the Janos angle is the only part of his grand, $2-million expansion plan that's gotten much attention. He believes the growing city deserves a growing museum.

"I'm not trying to create a controversy with Janos," he said. "...I'm not trying to take issue with the council...I'm doing something for downtown."

Yassin, former director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, joined TMA six years ago, taking over a museum that was in a virtual shambles. Buffeted by a disastrous series of short-term directors and frequent staff firings, the museum was emerging from a period of fiscal chaos. Critics and supporters alike agree Yassin has been a strong director who finally got things the museum moving again. In fact, the Janos flap is the first real controversy he's run up against. His conversion of the historic Fish House last winter into a museum gallery for cowboy art was roundly applauded, even though the private Presidio Gallery was forced to vacate the space.

"I thought with the collection we had--a museum in Tucson, with historic properties and a strong relationship to Mexico--we'd do better to focus on our strengths," he said, looking over his years on the job. "I'm trying to make it into a regional museum of art and history. These historic properties fit the bill perfectly...I want to make this a live, active place, to make it a destination."

Image The director prides himself on his expertise in historic preservation, and one of his first acts on the job was to change the museum's name to Tucson Museum of Art and Historic Block, to emphasize the architectural treasures under its care. The Stevens House and the other four houses are in the El Presidio Historic District, what Scoville calls the "surviving north fragment of the first city," and have belonged to the people of Tucson since 1968, when the city bought the decaying block up during the days of urban renewal.

The city still technically owns the houses, but gave the museum control of them in a long-term $1-a-year lease negotiated when the TMA started building on the block in 1973. The TMA had renovated the Stevens House by 1980.

"It was always the intent to use the houses as museum space," Yassin said. Only the economic hard times of the early '80s led TMA to install private businesses in the Stevens and Fish houses.

"We had problems, like everybody. We made some wrong decisions. We were in an 'endowment spiral.' The museum always wanted to have a lunch service. It would be an amenity and an income producer. Janos made the proposal to do a lunch and dinner service."

The lease Janos had, Yassin contended, was "highly advantageous" to the restaurateur. Moreover, Janos stopped serving lunch after a few years, finding his world-class dinners required chefs to be in the restaurant kitchen all day. A compromise solution, Wild Johnny's Wagon, entailed Janos serving lunch in the plaza out of rolling, fully outfitted vehicle that cost Wilder $125,000 to $150,000. That service is now in limbo. When Janos' lease expired, Yassin took the opportunity to negotiate a new lease that would allow the museum to expel Janos after three years if the space were needed for "museum purposes."

That time is now, Yassin said. Current rosy finances allow the museum to complete its never-finished construction scheme. By building the original museum structure out into its plaza, converting a storage area, taking over the Stevens House and building rooms that would re-attach the house to the neighboring Fish House, the museum hopes to gain a total of some 7,000 square feet in new gallery space. The Fish and Stevens would house western and historic art, the main museum contemporary art. Aided by the new city parking lot, TMA will replace the motley mix of ugly parking lots in the interior of its block with landscaped plazas. A perimeter wall will give the block a strong identity, and Yassin envisions craft and pottery demonstrations on the plaza on weekends. In future years, Yassin hopes, the museum will build a new museum annex on top of the new parking lot, and retrofit the Fish and Stevens houses into historic period houses, similar to today's Corbett House and Casa Cordova.

And despite his arguments about the dangerous use of the Stevens House as a restaurant. Yassin said he plans to operate a lunch service out of its kitchen, offering inexpensive brown-bag meals. He also expects to regain some of the income he'll lose from Janos by staging catered events in the plaza. But, he said, his chief motive is to put the whole complex into the public's hands.

"I want to make everything we have available to everyone," Yassin said. "A (historical property) is like a natural preserve. The only real way to preserve is to not let people on it. But we do it under controlled conditions, if we have the opportunity. The whole world isn't based on profit."

ACROSS THE WAY in Janos restaurant, seated in the lounge near a forbidding black-and-white photo of the ill-fated Hiram and Petra Stevens, Janos Wilder seemed as upset as Robert Yassin. When he learned of the museum's plans for the Stevens House, he said, "I was devastated." Hastening to say that "Yassin has been a wonderful director," Wilder expressed his perplexity at the museum's rush to expel him. The way he sees it, the nationally known restaurant is a draw for the museum, and the two ought to have a mutually beneficial relationship.

"We ought to be working together. We are a terrific asset...Having an expanded museum is better for tourism. But let's expand the museum and keep Janos."

Wilder, who counts Mayor George Miller and three council members, the Chamber of Commerce and the Metropolitan Tucson Convention and Visitors' Bureau among his supporters, said he has made a number of compromise proposals to the museum, none of which has met with an official response. He's offered to vacate his office, a 621-square-foot space at the south end of the Stevens House, which could then be linked by new galleries to the Fish House, according to the museum's plan. He's volunteered to allow daytime tours of the house, provided the museum lines up the necessary security guards and docents. And though over the years he's bought up his own collection of work by local artists from Bruce McGrew to Barbara Smith, he said he'd allow the museum's own collections to go up on the walls, provided he had the right of refusal for specific works. (Asked his reaction to this proposal, Yassin said indignantly, "Art is not background for a restaurant. This is a museum.")

Image In a curious way, Wilder's history mirrors Yassin's. If Yassin came to a museum in disarray, Wilder came to a downtown that in 1983 was downright pitiful. Blasted apart by urban renewal, blighted by recession, abandoned even by the major newspapers, it was not the sort of place most up-and-coming young entrepreneurs would want to start a business. After working as a chef in California, Colorado, New Mexico and France, the 28-year-old Wilder wanted to open his own place. He and his wife Rebecca, a native of Nogales, settled on Tucson.

"We looked at various locations. This one I fell absolutely in love with. People tried to talk me out of it. There was no convention center downtown. The only resort was the Sheraton (El Conquistador, on North Oracle Road). Opening a restaurant in a decaying downtown was foolhardy. But I was convinced this building was unique. I was naive enough to think if you did your best work, you could make a living."

Wilder guessed correctly. Running his renovations by the historic commission, he installed a restaurant kitchen, enclosed a porch that Petra Stevens had used as an aviary and built a dishwashing room, running up bills of about $125,000. Opening on Halloween 1983, Janos was an immediate success with the local critics. The restaurant got its first mention in The New York Times three months later. His inventive takes on traditional Southwestern food ("taking rellenos and making something fabulous, re-inventing tacos") struck a chord just as the nouvelle cuisine and regional food movements were getting into gear.

Tucson's city leaders were delighted to find a business in their burg getting national press in such toney publications as Bon Appétit and Travel and Leisure and even rating mentions abroad, in Japanese, French and German publications. Wilder himself became a celebrity of sorts, authoring a book and making TV appearances on such shows as Live! With Regis and Kathie Lee.

Patti Toci, who runs El Presidio Bed and Breakfast Inn up the street, says foodies come to Tucson from all over just to go to Janos. "I'm one of Janos' biggest fans. It's an incredible thing. It's known all over the country. People come down to Tucson for a couple of days just to go to Janos."

Wilder readily admits his meals are costly--most entrées are about $28--but his Summer Samplers, dinner-and-a-salad offered at $12.95 five months a year, represent his own populist effort in favor of middle-income locals. And his investment at a precarious time in the life of downtown has won him the enduring gratitude of the neighborhood. Says Larry Evers, another UA English professor who lives up the block, "Janos is one of the few businesses in town to make that kind of investment, and to do it with sensitivity and grace." Nevertheless, Wilder says if he's forced to leave the Stevens House, he'll likely head for the hills.

"We've looked all over downtown, but we have not seen anything suitable. We're looking all over...I might buy land and build...The downtown is not convenient to my customers, in the foothills and resorts."

MORE THAN ONE observer believes the dispute between the museum director and the chef has been intensified by personality conflicts.

"They don't get along," says Councilwoman Janet Marcus. "There's personal animosity between the two people. That's very obvious. This has mushroomed out of all shape because of the animosity between two people."

Image Agrees Scoville, "It's become a turfmanship issue."

Turfmanship or not, the Stevens House is a public building that belongs to the people. Any decision on its fate should take the greater good of the people and the city into account. There's no denying that right now by night downtown Tucson is a series of small oases of activity separated by dark office towers and forbidding government buildings. Janos is one of the few bright lights of activity, a pinpoint in the darkness. If the downtown is ever to achieve a whole constellation of bright nighttime bustle, it can't snuff out the places that stay open at night.

Councilman Leal, who agues that Janos' contribution to the economy is a small matter of "microeconomics," notes Yassin's future plans for the period museums will mesh well with current efforts to restore the old Convento site over at El Rio Nuevo South, on the west side of the Santa Cruz. But the activists trying to save Janos argue the city could be heading into a deadly surfeit of period museums, between the Sosa-Carrillo-Fremont House down at the Tucson Convention Center, and the five houses at TMA. The Fish House and the Stevens House are roughly of the same vintage. Does the city really need two historic houses detailing the same period?

One modest proposal would allow for museum visitors to see the advantages of historic period houses and adaptive re-use. Open up the Stevens House by day right away, and allow it to continue as Janos by night. Under the watchful eye of a museum guard, allow visitors in at specific times daily and schedule regular tours with museum docents. Museum visitors could start out with a look at the 19th-century Casa Cordova and an inspection of the early 20th-century Corbett House, both period houses, then go onto the Stevens House, where they'd learn all about the rough-and-tumble history of the Stevenes and Duffields.

In the near future, go ahead and take over Janos' office, construct the rooms the museum wants to build in-between the Fish and the Stevens House, and install some of the Spanish colonial art there. In later years, if the Fish House is done up as an 1860s Sonoran Territorial, tour groups could start out there looking over the furniture and decorative art from 19-century Tucson, and head for the Stevens House.

As a bonus, seeing the place decked out as a successful restaurant, they'd get a practical lesson in the virtues of historic preservation. They'd learn that saving old houses is good for conserving our history and culture, yes, but they'd also learn what Tucson has too long ignored: hanging onto the architecture of our past is also good for business. Wheeler-dealer businessman Stevens undoubtedly would approve.

In the meantime, the tempests over lunch service and temporary gallery space for the pre-Columbian, Spanish colonial and Mexican arts surely can be quelled by level heads. The city's proposal, placing what seems an ill-conceived gallery building on the property, would mar the footprint of an historic block that's been too much compromised already. A little inventive brainstorming could come up with something better.

As Councilwoman McKasson says, the Janos/TMA alliance "seems to be a good marriage." It's up to this era's movers and shakers to ensure it doesn't go the unfortunate way of the marriage of Hiram and Petra. TW

Image Map - Alternate Text is at bottom of Page

Tucson Weekly's New User Page
Tucson Weekly Staff Page
Tucson Weekly Archives

Page BackLast Week Current Week  Next Week Page Forward

Home | Currents | City Week | Music | Review | Cinema | Back Page | Forums | Search

Weekly Wire    © 1995-97 Tucson Weekly . Info Booth