The late Chris Carroll
Back in the late 1970s, when other people looked at the row of boarded up buildings that lined East Congress Street and the set of dive bars that seemed to go well with a downtown Tucson in nosedive, friends of Chris Carroll will tell you he saw something that often most of them couldn't see.
The row of boarded up buildings Carroll saw as the future of downtown redevelopment slowly became, under his vision, the row of galleries and other arts spaces, like Dinnerware and WomenKraft. In today's shadow of parking garages, student housing complexes and the constant hum of activity in new restaurants and bars, it's hard to imagine what existed before.
Carroll, with the help of Tucson tradesmen he counted as friend, he restored a series of buildings that eventually became home to artist collective spaces like Dinnerware and WomenKraft, and other galleries and art spaces. It was the beginning of downtown's redevelopment renaissance, and looking back it's good to remind ourselves how easy it is to forget where we came from and maybe Carroll's original vision can help us remember where we want to go.
Carroll, who passed away in July 2013, died in the Franklin House, a El Presidio neighborhood property in his family since 1898, built by his grandfather as a gift to his grandmother bride. Recognized for his historic preservation work downtown and other properties, like his family's Franklin House, Carroll was also a beloved UA English literature professor, loved by his students and known for sitting cross-legged on his desk in front of his classroom.
His wife, Susan Aiken, sitting in the Franklin House's front sitting room, says downtown's troubles seemed to begin when El Con Mall was built in the 1970s and almost every store left downtown for this new shopping venue.
"It was the kind of place nobody wanted to be at night," Aiken says, describing the row of buildings Carroll's family owned in the area now across the street from the Ronstadt Transit Center. Her husband was talking about restoration before anybody realized downtown could be revitalized or before they recognized it needed to be.
Carroll persuaded his family to back him financially as he went from building to building. One project was where Shot in the Dark stands. Another made a home for the forever missed Café Magritte.
"He was really the prime mover and visionary about what those stores could be. He took the old decaying plaster off that exposed the beautiful old bricks and restoreed the floors and turned what had been this rotting row of stores into something really attractive," Aiken says.
Once done, Aiken says her husband went about finding tenants for each space—almost hand picking them. For Shot in the Dark, it was Café Ole. The group of young artists who moved into the same building that later became Cafe Magritte and called themselves Dinnerware, but only because of the faint outline of the old business sign that Carroll purposefully left on the brick in the restoration.
"It was the ghostly remains of a crockery shop," Aiken says. "They liked the name."
The care put into making a home for Café Margritte was also important to Carroll—he had a friend do the walls in a pale peach color fresco. The restaurant's unique stove was made out of car fenders—a work of art, she says.
Before what we call Second Saturdays, there was Downtown Saturday Nights—lively evenings of gallery walks and bands performing at the transit center. Carroll was key to organizing those—thinking about the need to get more people to enjoy downtown and visit the galleries.
Besides leading downtown into a new era, Carroll didn't stop at East Congress Street. He served as acting director of the Tucson Art Center, which became the Tucson Museum of Art at the Knox Corbett House. He served on a variety of boards, including the Downtown Development Corporation and the Industrial Development Authority. He and his wife were honored for preserving the Franklin House, as well as the Zeckendorf-Hughes-Flores House at 433 N. Main Ave.
Aiken wonders if her husband's love of Tucson history and preservation came from his work as a medievalist and his love of medieval literature and other history.
"He understood that history doesn't stop with Homer, Virgil or Chaucer, but continues," Aiken says, adding that Carroll was interested in place and space and the important of place to community and the importance of community to place. "That reciprocal relationship he felt profoundly."
"Chris was a remarkable person of great depth and spirit and enthusiasm and very talented and bright," she says. His father owned a hardware store and worked with his hands, so Carroll never saw a machine he couldn't fix. He was a college professor with a deep respect for the trades and tradesmen who helped him do the restoration work he felt so important to Tucson.
Part of the city's yet-to-be-developed pocket park projects include one near the museum. Aiken says that one will be named after Carroll and most of the funds needed for the project have been raised.
"We're excited. It's fitting that it's right there near the Knox Corbett House," Aiken says. "An honor."