Mid Century Madness

Architect Judith Chafee and her work a highlight of the eighth Tucson Modernism Week

The late Tucson architect Judith Chafee's day of recognition has arrived.


One of the best architects Tucson has ever had, Chafee made beautiful houses simultaneously filled with light and protected from the harsh desert sun. While drawing from the indigenous shelters and Mexican adobes that had allowed centuries of people to live in an unforgiving climate, she made structures that were bold and wholly modern.

But unfortunately for Tucsonans, in an age when architecture was mostly male, she never won any big public commissions to grace the city where she lived most of her life.

The first scholarly book on Chafee (she died 21 years ago at 66) is out Oct. 8. Published by Princeton Architectural Press, Powerhouse: The Life and Work of Architect Judith Chafee, by Christopher Domin and Kathryn McGuire, boasts color photos of many of her works, shot by photographer Bill Timmerman.

And Tucson Modernism Week, running from Oct. 4 to Oct. 13—with no fewer than 45 events, from exhibitions to lectures to parties and tours—is taking the opportunity to honor her.

"It's a celebration of Judith Chafee," says Demion Clinco, CEO of the Tucson Foundation for Historic Preservation, which puts on the modernism festival each year.

Two of Chafee's houses, the 1975 Jacobson House and the 1983 Centrum House, will be on the Mid Century Modern Home Tour on Sunday, Oct. 13. The book's two co-authors, McGuire, an architect who studied with Chafee at the UA and worked with her for 18 years, and Domin, an architect and UA prof, expect to be at the houses to talk to visitors about the architect's intentions.

The day before the tour, Domin will give a Chafee lecture at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 12, at the American Evangelical Church, 115 N. Tucson Blvd. And a cocktail party, also Oct. 12, will be held at the Centrum House, where partiers with VIP passes will each get a free copy of the book.

Many of Chafee's ideas were ahead of her time, McGuire says.

"Way back in the 1970s, Judith was saying 'sustainability is important. We have to protect our environment,'" McGuire says. On one project on a hilly foothills lot, for instance, Chafee identified every saguaro on the property before she even sketched out a design. And when she built the house, she saved every single saguaro—and the slope itself.

Born in Chicago in 1932, Chafee grew up in Tucson and studied architecture at Yale. After graduation, she worked in Connecticut with such luminaries as Eero Saarinen, Paul Rudolph and Walter Gropius, a founder of the Bauhaus.

When she was 38, Chafee came home to Tucson and opened her own practice. But it was 1970, and female architects were rare. She designed plenty of private homes, but public commissions were reserved almost exclusively for men. Placing a bid to design the new Rincon High School, she was hired—to design the girls' locker room.

The Chafee locker room "was fantastic," McGuire says. "But she didn't get the whole building (job). That was not for women."

Chafee's Jacobson House in the tour is a two-bedroom "retirement" home. Its most distinctive feature is a carefully crafted library staircase—a set of steps for books that "morphed into a reading loft."

The Centrum House, Chafee's only spec project, is a larger affair, a wood frame and stucco with three bedrooms and a "central core" for the living and dining rooms and kitchen. Until a recession intervened, the plan was to build up to eight houses of the same design. But Chafee made sure that the plans were flexible enough to allow each house to respond to its particular location.

"Solar orientation was critical," McGuire says.

The owners of the house later hired Chafee to design an elaborate outdoor living space; artist Barbara Grygutis created a sculptural installation in the yard.

Three houses by other architects are also on the Home Tour. Earl Kai Chann's family home in Wilshire Heights, on Tucson's southeast side, has "beautiful linear lines and lots of plate glass," Demion Clinco says. "It was inspired by the Eero Saarinen Miller House."

A foothills house by architect David Fraker has "a Rat Pack flavor," Clinco notes. "It's a real throwback to '60s hyper-exuberance." Rumor has it that Frank Sinatra stayed in the house when he was in Tucson shooting a movie.

Another '60s house, architect unknown, has plenty of glass and steel and concrete stairwells. Home tour participants are also invited to visit the Skyline Country Club clubhouse of the same vintage. ■

Mid Century Modern Home Tour, Sunday, Oct. 13, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. $30. Tickets can be purchased online. Pick up tickets and maps at Tucson Modernism Week Headquarters (Sunshine Mile, Solot Plaza, 2631 E. Broadway Blvd.). Self-directed tour. A limited number of lunches, $20 per person, are available at Skyline Country Club to tourgoers. Reservation required at 299-1111, ext. 214 or at dcastro@skylinecountryclub.com.

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