Guest Commentary

Tucson Medical Center's expansion plans would mean the loss of a Tucson original

"Urban renewal" will soon impose its will on the Tucson Medical Center and former Desert Sanatorium campus. This renewal will demolish the entire hospital campus, construct towers upward of 200 feet, relocate the landmark water tower and embalm two historic buildings.

The water tower was constructed in 1926 to provide a consistent water supply for individuals seeking treatment for tuberculosis at the new Desert Sanatorium. The Patio building--built in 1928 as the center for research related to curing tuberculosis--will be spared, as will the Erickson residence. The Erickson family's vision and wealth made the transition from tuberculosis sanatorium to community hospital possible. These buildings will stand, while other historic properties, along with many of the patio gardens, will needlessly be destroyed. All these soon-to-be-lost community assets relate to a time when TMC had a relationship with the desert and the Old Pueblo.

Urban renewal was a federal program making the rounds of many cities throughout the 1960s. This program provided federal funds to help cities remove "blighted" areas of the community and bring "progress." Tucson, along with other cities, abused and manipulated the intent of the program, and rampant real estate speculation and a disdain for the past became the real vision. This 1960s way of thinking--massive demolition, imposing towers, little desire to incorporate past accomplishments--is alive and well in the TMC administration through the actions of their hospital engineer, architect and planning consultant.

The current tower proposal is actually déjà vu. In the early 1960s, plans were completed for two eight-story towers. This vision for the future began shortly after the death of Anna Erickson, who made the idea of a community hospital a reality with a gift of land in a 1943 agreement conveying the buildings of the Desert Sanatorium and the acreage on which the current hospital now stands. Many people in the community at that time (and some even today) believed that the campus was legally restricted to just one-story development, thanks to Mrs. Erickson. But one of Tucson's urban legends unraveled: No legal agreement could be found to prohibit a vertical approach to the hospital's design. The only recorded prohibition dealt with a later gift from Anna Erickson of 60 acres south of Grant Road and west of Craycroft Road in 1959, now known as Tucson Medical Park. That document read: "Center hereby agrees with Erickson that it will not during her lifetime erect on any of the land ... any building which shall exceed one story in height and that each quit-claim deed ... shall contain a prohibition and covenant against the erection during her lifetime on any of such land of any building exceeding one story in height. ... "

The philosophy that gave credence to the one-story legend developed from the first expansion of TMC in 1946. Horizontal construction was deemed more affordable, and a tradition had been established with the one-story Desert Sanatorium. Treatment for tuberculosis (the "white plague") included plenty of fresh desert air with easy access to outdoor patios from one-story court buildings; two-story buildings provided residences for nursing and support staff for this "out-of-town" location. Over the decades, TMC continued this relationship with the outdoors and nature by incorporating landscaped courtyards, thanks to the efforts of many individuals and organizations within the community, including the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.

The doomed historic campus includes the nurses' residence just west of the Patio building, the four courts and the Catalina building just north of the water tower, as well as the employees' quarters. The water tower will probably not survive relocation to the "community park" near the congested intersection of Grant and Craycroft roads.

Tucson Medical Center is a community hospital and a true Tucson original that does need new facilities to meet the future changes in medicine, but institutional arrogance and empire-building at TMC demands buildings between 100 and 200 feet high over much of the campus. There is no willingness to work around the unique resources--essentially, the administration plans to create a huge office park. As in the 1960s, strong community response is needed to stop the current momentum. We need to speak up for downscaled multi-story buildings that can adapt to future changes and preserve the historic resources and gardens.

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