A Short History of the Stevens House

The sweep of history in the Tucson Museum of Art's chronologically organized exhibitions, from the Andean works to folk art of very recent vintage, echoes the admittedly much shorter history of the patchwork Stevens house.

Unfortunately for Tucsonans' always fragile sense of place, the house has been renamed in honor of major lenders to the exhibition, papering over the authentic names that evoke the house's colorful history. A suicide and a murder attempt took place within these rooms, which are said to be haunted by the ghost of the suicidal Hiram Stevens. Family tragedy gave way to deteriorating rental rooms, then in succession a teahouse, an artist's colony and a fancy restaurant.

The row of adobes at Main and Alameda streets went up at various points in the latter half of the 19th century, according to a history compiled by TMA's Bettina Lyons in 1980. The Fish House, at the southern end, may actually incorporate a piece of the fabled presidio wall built by the Spanish in 1783. The northern rooms of the house belonged to Milton B. Duffield. Appointed by President Lincoln in 1863 as the first U.S. Marshall in Arizona, the notorious Duffield, a hard drinker, gunslinger and bigamist, came to Tucson in 1864. He bought a modest existing house, the one with the yellow room now graced by a Ferris wheel and rising Lazarus.

Two years later, Hiram Stevens, a wheeler-dealer businessman and politician who had arrived in town around 1856, bought the lot just south of Duffield's place. In 1866 he built a much fancier house for himself and his wife, Petra Santa Cruz, a young Tucson woman. That first Stevens house likely consisted of the central zaguán, where the Colonial paintings now hang, and the four small adjoining rooms. In 1868, Edward Nye Fish bought the property to the south of the Stevens place; he built a new house that likely incorporated a piece of an older structure. The basic outlines of the current buildings were all in place by about 1870.

Both Duffield and Stevens died violently. Famously bad-tempered, Duffield was fired from his last job as a postal agent. When he was shot to death at a mine claim along the San Pedro River in 1874, his three wives contested his will.

Stevens made himself a tidy fortune in mining, ranching and shepherding; he also sold provisions to the Army and dealt in hardware. His role in the Camp Grant Massacre of Native Americans in 1871--like his accomplices he was acquitted of murder--did not keep him from handily winning election to Congress in 1874 as a Territorial delegate. This enterprising character took advantage of his neighbor Duffield's demise that same year by buying up his house and incorporating it into his own. As he rose in status and wealth, Stevens kept enlarging his house, the better to entertain his political cronies at elaborate parties. For all his success, Stevens died by his own hand in the room northwest of the zaguán, in 1893. He shot himself in the head after trying--and failing--to kill his wife. She's believed to have been saved by a Spanish comb that deflected the shots from her head.

The fine fortune rapidly diminished and widow Petra moved into the Duffield rooms and rented out the rest, beginning the house's long period of decline. The Stevens' daughter Eliza was disinherited, and the Corbetts next door acquired the property and evicted Eliza and her children.

Some 20 years later, a pair of Marylanders, Hoagland and Margaret Gates, bought the deteriorating houses. Entranced by the buildings' Southwestern charm, the Gateses renovated the houses and lived there with their two daughters from 1936 until 1941, when ill health forced a return back East. After Hoagland died, Margaret acted as an absentee landlord until 1968.

It was during these rental years that the houses evolved into their first arts uses. The artist Gerry Pierce lived there in the '40s; architect William Wilde, who would later design the current museum building, was a tenant in the 1950s. Painter Jim Waid arrived in the 1960s with his family, and delighted in the artists' colony he found thriving in the crumbling adobe buildings. Having escaped from the derelict Bowery in New York City, Waid found the historic houses and gardens a low-rent Southwestern paradise.

The city fathers got hold of the buildings during the urban renewal frenzy of the late '60s, and instead of leveling them as they did several hundred other historic adobes, handed them over to the care of the fledgling TMA.