Everything Old Is New

Tucson's modern architecture is celebrated during a three-day series of tours and events

Architect Anne Rysdale, 92, is on the phone from Bradenton, Fla. She's patiently answering questions about her long career—until she's asked if she's enjoying her retirement.

"Who retired?" she exclaims indignantly. "What is that ugly rumor?"

In fact, Rysdale, a prolific architect of Tucson's postwar boom, has never stopped working.

"I still do small jobs in my studio at home," she says, working with two partner architects. "And I testify in court as an expert witness. I'm a forensic architect," specializing in cases of "moisture intrusion"—a bane of buildings in humid Florida.

But Rysdale spent most of her career in Arizona's dry desert. Working in Tucson from the late 1940s to 1980, the heyday of midcentury modern architecture, she favored flashes of color—shiny copper, painted metal—and local materials like concrete, stone and adobe, as well as plenty of glass.

She was playful, too. For the Rysdale brand of space-age giddiness, check out The Shelter cocktail lounge on Grant Road, the Tucson Inn on Drachman Street, and the Spanish Trail Motor Hotel on Benson Highway. Her Sun Building on Speedway Boulevard dazzles with a flash of copper.

Dozens of ranch houses in El Encanto, Winterhaven and Tucson Country Club Estates bear her signature, along with a slew of office buildings and shopping centers and even multiple McDonald's.

"I was a midcentury architect," she says. "If they gave me a job, I'd do it—shopping centers, public buildings. I did the courthouse in Globe from scratch. I remodeled the Tucson City Hall. I did lots of schools in Tucson."

Rysdale will return to Tucson this week to talk about her career. Illustrated with slides of her work, her free lecture this Friday, Nov. 9, at Temple Emanu-El is the kickoff for a weekend of activities celebrating Tucson's midcentury modern movement.

The Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation is sponsoring the first Tucson Modernism Week, which, despite its name, will be three days of lectures, films and tours. The events will take place mostly along Broadway, many of whose modernist buildings—including a few by Rysdale—are threatened by the planned street-widening.

"Broadway was the spine of the expansion of the city," says architect Chris Evans, who will lecture at noon Saturday on "Modernism of the Broadway Corridor." "It had a different character from the other east-west corridors," with ambitious architect-designed buildings.

A Broadway map designed for a self-guided tour includes Rysdale's Pima Plaza, a sturdy two-story office building at Broadway and Olsen Avenue. Made of concrete block and decorative local stone, the long rectangular structure is colored a rosy salmon. Bright-green metal poles hold up the second-floor porches. Deep overhangs and limited windows on the east and west ward off the sun, and two open-air patios with brick walkways and lots of plants bring the outdoors in.

"Just look at that concrete block," building manager Tom Unger says admiringly. "It's on all the ceilings, laid end to end. You couldn't knock it down if you tried. It's a great building."

When Rysdale arrived in Tucson with her parents in 1933, the Old Pueblo had yet to try out modernism. Its public buildings favored Spanish Colonial Revival.

Driving in from the north, "we were coming downhill from the Catalina Mountains when I saw Tucson for the first time," Rysdale says. "I was expecting something that would look like Old Tucson. But it was a sophisticated town. It had a couple of stoplights. There were two tall buildings over 15 stories high—the Pioneer Hotel and Valley National Bank."

The daughter of a Navy man, Rysdale was born Barbara Anne Nicholas in 1920 in Detroit, her mother's hometown.

"My mother wanted to have her baby at her mother's place," she says. The family bounced around for a few years, ending up in Plainfield, N.J., before moving west for good.

Rysdale always liked to draw, and after graduating from Tucson Senior High, she double-majored in art and engineering at the UA, which in those days had no architecture program.

"I wanted to do house plans," she says. "I liked drawing with rulers."

The dean took a dim view of Rysdale and another young woman studying engineering, she says. "At the engineering school, they used to apologize for me." She persisted anyway, and graduated.

She married right out of college, to George "Rattlesnake" Jackson, a UA football player who, she explains with a belly laugh, became the first of her five husbands, and the father of her only child.

Jackson joined the military as an ROTC officer, and Rysdale signed on with the Navy after the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941.

"The Navy was glad to have me," she says. She was put to work in California, using her engineering prowess on wartime ships and bombers. Transferred to a Navy yard in Seattle, she studied architecture at the University of Washington in her off hours. Later, in Washington, D.C., she directed the Long Range Navigation operation.

She and her husband rendezvoused long enough for her to get pregnant, but as an officer, she wasn't required to resign. She merely changed uniforms, going from "a size 8 to a size 14. I went back to my mother in Tucson to have the baby."

Her daughter was born in August 1945, during the week the U.S. dropped atom bombs on Japan and ended the war.

"I was discharged a year later, an honorable discharge," Rysdale says.

She went to work in Tucson, coupling her engineering and architecture skills to help design a sewer system at Fort Huachuca for a big firm. But she soon switched to pure architecture, hiring on with the office of respected early modernist Art Brown.

By the time she left to set up her own office, she had a new name, courtesy of a second husband, Bertram Rysdale. The marriage was brief, she says, but the name stuck. She named her firm Rysdale Associates Architects Inc. And in 1949, as Anne J. Rysdale, she passed the test to become a registered architect in the state of Arizona. From 1949 to the 1960s, Rysdale was the only registered female architect practicing in Arizona.

"I opened offices in Tucson, Tempe, Globe and Albuquerque," Rysdale says. "At the top of employment, I had 106 employees. More than half my work was in Tucson, but I did commercial work in New Mexico and Texas, and sororities in California."

As a woman in business, "I put up with the usual crap and garbage—everything that women professionals run into."

Rysdale's daughter, Valerie Jackson, a UA-trained archaeologist, says that her mother "focused on how people used the buildings. In the commercial buildings, there was a plan for closets and storage. In the houses, she was early to include dishwashers and convection ovens.

"It's a little bit of a stereotype, but she was a woman, and she thought about these things," Jackson says. And when Rysdale was designing a home for a family, "She listened to the wives." As a result, "she was very influential in ranch-house design."

Rysdale says she's "startled" at the renewed interest in her midcentury modern designs in her old hometown.

"But I'm glad," she says with a chuckle. "Everything old is new again."

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