History Resurrected

Downtown's historic Marist College may be on the verge of rebirth

Marist College dominates West Ochoa Street like a three-story vision of failure: It somehow failed to grasp modernity as 1960s urban renewal gutted surrounding barrios and left the banal Tucson Convention Center as a souvenir.

But where man stumbled, nature seems eager to engage: Today, three corners of Marist College bear huge gray tarps, to protect them from further crumbling under furious monsoons. Another corner is bandaged in black plastic strips. On top, what appears to have been a triumphant cross is reduced to a pile of stone.

Until recently, this empty old college seemed prepared to fade into quiet dissolution. That would be a tragedy for what's believed to be Arizona's sole remaining tri-story adobe, erected in 1915 by master builder Manuel Flores, and resplendent in its flourishes of Italian renaissance and Spanish colonial revival styles.

But architecture is only part of the story. While Marist College may represent the peak of adobe construction, it also marks a progressive milestone for integration at a time when segregated schools were the status quo.

Now in its 94th year, the Marist building is getting a fresh, long-deserved shot at resurrection. A team of history-minded people—ranging from the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation and the city's Historic Preservation Office to the Roman Catholic Diocese—are combining to gain state and national recognition for the building. In turn, that could help raise government funding for restoration, which is projected to cost between $3 million and $4 million.

This process is already underway; in 2007, Marist was placed on the Arizona Preservation Foundation's Most Endangered Historic Places List. Local preservationist Ken Scoville subsequently prepared a nomination for listing as an Arizona Centennial Legacy Project. And Jennifer Levstik of the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation wrote a nomination for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. That would make the building eligible for a Save America's Treasures federal grant, or for direct funding from Congress.

Reasons for rescuing this relic go beyond mere structural integrity, and into the heart of cultural dignity. "At the time that (the Marist College) was built, people were saying that adobe architecture was primitive, and that modern European techniques were brick and wood," says Levstik. "Adobe was looked down upon, because it was associated with the Mexican-American community."

The Marist College snubbed that notion of ethnic division, and broke barriers as the walls went up. It was built during the tenure of Bishop Henry Regis Granjon, a Frenchman. "But most of the Catholic population at that time would have been Mexican, or Mexican-American," Levstik says. "That was the community he was reaching out to and dealing with on a regular basis."

The school was also deeply integrated, with African-American, Mexican-American and Anglo students, she says. "I believe it was after 1909 that all of the schools in Tucson were segregated by race. Dunbar School was the only one I know of in Tucson that offered any kind of education to African-American students—except for the Marist College. I think very few people know that it was actually integrated. Marist was one of the few places where African-American students could receive a quality education.

"It was a day school and a boarding school. So African-Americans, Mexican-Americans and some Anglo students—they all lived together and went to school together. Your economic background or your religious affiliation didn't really matter."

This philosophy emanates from the Marist Brothers of the Schools, a Catholic religious order founded by French priest Marcellin Champagnat in 1817. The order's original calling was to educate the impoverished children of France, although it eventually carried this progressive mission worldwide.

"Their goal was to provide education to children in Tucson and all over the world who otherwise wouldn't be able to have a quality education," says Levstik.

In Tucson, a magnificent edifice would soon match their lofty goals. The Marist College is stout and robust, with a commanding, linear forthrightness. But stern pretenses are softened by elegant ornamentation, by the adobe underneath, and by touches such as the oversized Atlas figures luxuriating on either side of the arcaded, second-story entryway. Far above them, a small porch juts out like a stiff upper lip; above that, a 6-foot-high parapet rings the broad roof.

It operated as a school under various religious orders until 1968, when it became offices for the Tucson Diocese. The building finally fell vacant in 2002. Subsequent neglect—including clogged roof scuppers that allowed water to collect, and the addition of stucco, which disastrously held moisture inside the unfired adobe—led to one corner collapsing after a heavy rain. Today, both western corners bear damage beneath their tarp covers.

Jonathan Mabry is the city's historic preservation officer. He says the process of saving Marist College will be just as elaborate as the building's original design. It starts with emergency stabilization, and retrofitting the old structure to modern, earthquake-resistant standards. Then the first floor will be renovated, and the north, south and perimeter walls stabilized. But that's just the beginning. While every step will be costly, "the initial phase could be done, and then a tenant could complete the work to finish the interior," he says. "So there are several ways to slice and dice this budget."

Getting a tenant also means certain changes—such as the diocese relinquishing control of its building. "To receive any government funding, whether city, county or federal, the diocese would have to convey the building to that government entity in exchange for the funding," Mabry says. "And the reason is that public money cannot be spent on privately owned property."

It's been suggested that the Marist College be used as office space for nonprofit groups, or some general public function. That's critical to making this a downtown success story, says Demion Clinco, president of the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation. "It's really exciting to see everyone—the city of Tucson, the diocese, the foundation—come together to find a use for this building that's really public. That makes it more valuable in how people view it.

The alternative is undignified decay—for a building that's certainly earned a bit of respect.

"The worst thing that can happen to a building is for it not to be in use," Clinco says. "Once it becomes vacant, you can see what happens."

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