Important Architecture

The fate of historically significant buildings becomes part of the Broadway-widening discussion

The grace of this building on Broadway Boulevard belies the workaday traffic roaring past. Designed by architect Howard Peck in 1966, and expanded under his hand five years later, it's a modernist jewel of post-World War II design.

It's also entangled in a current roadway tug of war.

Few drivers notice the building's opulent touches—a recessed entrance beneath an extended redwood canopy, the mid-century aluminum lettering—as they rumble by. If anything catches their casual eye, it's probably the enormous wall panels in cast concrete, designed by artist Charles Clement, and resplendent with vertical, shadow-grabbing inlays.

This mini-masterpiece is but one of many on a traffic corridor that some folks hope will be transformed into an eight-lane behemoth. But opponents of such expansion argue that it would do irreparable harm to several modernistic buildings here, and render Broadway yet another soulless thoroughfare.

This battle dates back to 2006, when ambitions to make Broadway eight lanes between Euclid Avenue and Country Club Road were approved by voters as part of a sweeping, 20-year regional-transportation plan.

But the vast nature of that plan left out most of the details. Now the community is grappling with a project based on 25-year-old traffic projections that critics say were flawed to begin with. As it stands, construction could lead to the demolition of more than 100 homes, businesses and historic properties along this roadway.

It could also lay waste to these treasures from a golden era. So booming was this upscale stretch of Broadway after the war that, in 1953, city fathers polled the community for a special name for it. "The Sunshine Mile" was the winning entry; while not exactly novel, the fresh moniker did note the significance of a business district marked by crisp, geometric designs, stylish signage and the innovative use of materials such as concrete.

That legacy has not gone unnoticed: Earlier this month, the Arizona Preservation Foundation named Broadway Boulevard one of our state's most-endangered historic places. Post-World War II architecture "is getting to the point where it's eligible for historic status," says foundation board president Jim McPherson. "But the width and breadth of this possible road-widening would affect so many properties of that era.

"We were just very concerned that we would lose so much, at a time that we're trying to get a handle on those midcentury properties and architecture. That era was important in the growth and development of Arizona as a state. If you tear out a whole era of architecture, then you're missing the whole story."

As for adding Broadway to the endangered list, "We wanted to put this out there now," McPherson says, "so the community can have a public-policy dialogue, and (decision-makers) can re-look at this traffic plan initially put together in the 1980s."

Apparently, the dialogue is already unfolding.

At the moment, I'm standing outside Howard Peck's tony masterpiece with Demion Clinco and Andie Zelnio. Clinco is president of the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation, and Zelnio is an architect and key organizer for Tucson Modernism Week. Held earlier this month, that sweeping soirée highlighted Broadway's architectural gems with receptions, lectures and tours. Today, Clinco is describing how Peck also designed the Loft Cinema building on Speedway Boulevard. "He was not a very prolific architect, and there's not a lot of information known about him," Clinco says. "But the work he produced is certainly memorable."

Zelnio motions toward the entrance of the building, now closed for the evening. "Inside the door, there's a courtyard with a big tree right by the door," she says. "It's really beautiful."

According to Clinco, the distinctive sculptural panels were added in 1971, when the building was revamped. Taken as a whole, he says, "it is sort of elevating architecture to art."

"I think his work is actually in some museums," Zelnio says. "He was an important artist."

But Peck's quiet achievement at 2825 E. Broadway Blvd. is just one gem among many. It's joined by the Kelly Building, at 2343 E. Broadway Blvd. Designed in the mid-'60s by architect Nick Sakellar, the structure melds curvilinear forms with new, sculptural materials. And the second floor is notable for a "piano key" series of vertical windows and fins.

Then there's the S.J. Lind Building at 2257 E. Broadway Blvd, with an interior ceiling curving out above the glass storefront and blending into the fascia. Or Hirsh's Shoes at 2934 E. Broadway Blvd.; designed by Bernard Friedman, it features an open-front façade, integrated interior and exterior zones, angled walls and an exposed-frame canopy marking the entrance.

The city recently convened a citizens' task force to hash out the original Broadway Corridor plan. As the task force plugs away, it remains unclear just how many of these buildings will escape unscathed. Further complicating things, bonds for the road project are administered by the Regional Transportation Authority. Several times, the RTA has hinted that it could withhold funding if the task force recommends a largely reconfigured and shrunken project, and the city follows that advice.

City Councilman Steve Kozachik, whose Ward 6 encompasses the expansion project, has steadfastly opposed the widening as unneeded and too costly. Instead, he's argued to reconfigure Broadway within its current width, using only the $42 million in bond money approved by voters, while steering Pima County's promised $25 million contribution toward other projects.

"There's $43 million just in right-of-way acquisition for this project," Kozachik told the Weekly in an earlier interview. "We can find another place to spend it that will probably make more sense."

To date, it's also unclear just how many of these properties will play into the task force's deliberations. But Clinco says he addressed the group's Nov. 10 workshop, which was devoted to this topic. And according to the city's Broadway project manager, significant buildings will be a key part of the discussion, as the task force focuses on roadway-design preferences. "It's too early to say that it could lead to a decision of preserving the whole corridor," notes Jenn Toothaker Burdick. "But I can tell you there is very heightened awareness about the history of the corridor and the importance of it."

Many task-force members hadn't taken time to ponder these distinctive and lovely buildings, Clinco says. Now he hopes preservation will gain some heft in the discussion.

"My feeling is: Should we be tearing down a significant corridor of midcentury modern buildings?" he asks. "It's certainly the most intact corridor of such buildings in our city, and maybe in the state of Arizona."

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