The Big Build-Up

Our Readers ChooseThe Latest Tucson Architectural Landmarks.

THE READERS HAVE spoken about their architectural druthers, and what they like are unpretentious buildings scaled to community life.

The Hotel Congress, a modest brick building that began life as a railroad hotel in 1919 and evolved into an ultra-cool downtown hangout, won in the historic category of this year's Tucson Architectural Landmarks Contest, co-sponsored by the Tucson Weekly and the UA's Arizona Architectural Archives. St. Francis in the Foothills Church Educational Facility and Landscaping, lauded by one voter "for being environmentally sensitive," drew first place in the contemporary division. The 1988 complex cleverly integrates a classroom building and parking lot into the desert, seamlessly meshing both with an existing church. Planners, take note--both buildings have parking lots smartly designed NOT to detract from their streetside presence.

One is a model of historic preservation and the other an example of smart modernism, and both will be permanently enshrined on the list of Tucson landmarks, which already includes such faves as San Xavier and Ventana Canyon Resort.

Our high-minded contest was unfortunately marred by a cheating scandal. Ballot stuffers in the law, engineering and medical professions came perilously close to putting both winners out of the running; we know who you are because you actually crammed great piles of identical ballots into company letterhead envelopes. Nevertheless, even discounting the shocking votes by cheaters, the honest votes of ordinary citizens were enough to push these two buildings into first place.

Among the other candidates, Tucson High and the Fox Theater tied for second in the historic category. A nonprofit foundation right now is renovating the 1929 Fox, which had fallen into disuse for decades, and one reader said her vote for the theater was cast "to help ensure (its) preservation." The Neoclassical 1924 high school has been enhanced by additions unusual in their thoughtfulness in a budget-conscious public school district.

In the contemporary division, the 1988 skyscraper bank at 1 S. Church Ave. came in far ahead of the University of Arizona Main Library, built in 1976. In fact, one anonymous reader took the time to cast a negative vote against the library, saying that all UA architecture is "garbage."

Interestingly, our historic winner is a minor building by the architect who more than anyone else helped shape the UA architectural aesthetic. Roy Place, 1887-1950, designed the Hotel Congress just two years after he came to Tucson in 1917, but he's better known for such UA anchor buildings as Centennial Hall and the two Arizona State Museum buildings. He also put up elaborate Spanish colonial revival buildings off campus, including he beloved Pima County Courthouse downtown (already on the Landmark list) and the pink-fantasy Benedictine Convent on Country Club.

According to R. Brooks Jeffery, curator of the UA Architectural Archives, our contest co-chair and walking encyclopedia of Tucson architecture, Place, a California native, arrived in Tucson after working with the firm that masterminded the Stanford University campus.

It was Place who got the campus to follow the red brick road, Jeffery says. And it was Place who did brick best.

"Place knew how to use brick to create shadows and relief to take advantage of the strong sunlight," Jeffery says, "... to create a canvas of patterns created by the sun." Today's campus architects, Jeffery notes, use brick in a dispiriting fashion, creating "monolithic surface(s) instead of exploiting its inherent qualities."

In the Hotel Congress, an altogether humbler undertaking, Place's fanciful UA brickwork devolved into plain brick walls and serviceable tile roof. The Congress offered respectable temporary lodgings right across from the train station to many a young lady or gentleman arriving in town to begin a university career.

Its most notorious episode began in a conflagration in the early 1930s that permanently claimed the lodge's third floor, and ended in the arrest of the infamous John Dillinger gang a few days later, the hoodlums' photos having been recognized in a crime journal by alert firefighters.

As the automobile edged out the train, the hotel took a typical urban slide into boarding house and poverty housing. But in 1985, it perked up again when new owner Richard Oseran ordered an imaginative restoration by Eglin Cohen Architects. Oseran gambled that the decrepit mid-'80s downtown might yet turn around, and his gamble paid off. Today the hotel is a welcome beacon of revitalization for drivers curving into downtown on Broadway, and it's heavily frequented by Tucsonans and by young travelers.

The lobby blossomed into Southwest Art Deco murals; restaurant, bar, lobby and storefronts all returned to their previous uses. Club Congress for years offered live--and loud--rock to a packed room, although these days DJs are more likely to hold forth. The upstairs bedrooms, last renovated after the 1930s fire, are Depression-era time capsules, complete with black and white tile bathrooms, black telephones and no televisions.

"It's significant that you can still see how a hotel of that era functioned. It's been restored to its true self," Jeffery says.

St. Francis is light years away from the funky downtown hotel, but it's equally beloved by its proponents. Set in a lush piece of desert at River and Swan, the church contacted Tucson architectural firm Line and Space in desperation about a parking problem, architect Les Wallach remembers. Reluctant to carve a lot into their beautiful desert, the growing number of congregants had provoked the sheriff's ire by parking on River Road.

"They could only think of clear grading," says Wallach, calling the church a "great client." Wallach imagined a series of small lots cut into the hillside like terraces. "We came up with 15 separate, 20-car parking lots. They're treated like a gravy train, with lots of links between. The grade changes gradually and encircles the site. We preserved much more vegetation" than a clear-cut parking lot would have.

Line and Space, now known for the visitors' centers at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and the Boyce Thompson Arboretum and award-winning private homes, was then perfecting its trademark blurring of the lines between interior and exterior. "The new building connects to the church through outside circulation," Wallach explains. Desert plantings partly hide the new education building, and parishioners wander between the new building and the older church on meandering landscaped paths and patios.

The church's reputation for community activism had to be reflected in the design of the interiors. Wallach's firm devised a way to cover a whole wall in each classroom with a system of revolving cabinet doors that also serve as double-sided bulletin boards for fliers and notices. Energy efficiency was also important to the environmentally aware congregation, and the architects designed a site-specific energy control system to cut down on utility bills.

Jeffery, the UA archivist, says that he prizes Wallach's design for the way "it really unifies two disparate buildings through a landscaping plan. The blurring of indoor and outdoor space, and the way the building follows the serpentine pattern of the land (makes for) an ideal facility that exemplifies modern architecture in the desert."