Saving At-Risk Architecture

Local modernism gets the spotlight during Architecture Week

After World War II, when Tucson was starting to boom, high-powered architects came to the desert to preach the gospel of modernism.

They favored a stripped-down aesthetic, rendered in simple contemporary materials like concrete and steel, and big spans of glass that blurred the line between indoors and out. They didn't want their buildings to be faux California Spanish missions or pastiche New Mexican pueblos. They wanted them to be buildings of their own time and place, the get-up-and-go-to-work America of the 1950s.

But that didn't mean they didn't respond to the local climate.

"They applied their ideology to the desert, and responded to the desert in their own way," says R. Brooks Jeffery, director of the UA's Preservation Studies program and co-author, along with Anne M. Nequette, of A Guide to Tucson Architecture.

Arthur Brown, a Midwesterner who'd been influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright in Chicago, gave Tucson--and the nation--its first passive-solar designed school. His 1948 Rose School had north-facing windows, heavy overhangs on the south, and a unique channeled roof that vented the heat out. And though it was modern, its low-slung, one-story construction related to traditional Sonoran architecture.

As Brown himself wrote, "This school is not a far departure in exterior design from the first school built in Tucson in 1875."

Other arrivals, including Nicholas Sakellar of Ohio and William Wilde, a native Ukrainian, designed modern buildings for Tucson with deep overhangs, cantilevered roofs and indoor-outdoor spaces. Tucson native Judith Chafee, who trained and worked back East, returned home to practice, and came up with extraordinary modernist houses that ingeniously married modernism with vernacular Indian architecture. One of her houses even had a giant Tohono O'odham-style shade ramada overhead.

Nevertheless, much of their work failed to win Tucsonans' hearts.

"These buildings are not warm and fuzzy," says Jeffery, who will give a lecture titled "Foundations of Modern Architecture in Tucson" at 2 p.m. Saturday at Sakellar's Wilmot Branch Library.

And the buildings are already at risk. Rose School is long gone. Brown's Tucson General Hospital, whose unique aluminum sun shade on the south façade is on the cover of the Guide, is being taken down right now, to make way for a new UMC cancer center. Chafee's Blackwell House in the Tucson Mountains was felled in 1998, after an amazingly rancorous public debate over a desert-friendly house her colleague Kathryn McGuire later called a "sweet space."

Wilde's College Shop stores near the UA met the wrecking ball in 2001, and his Tucson Museum of Art has been inappropriately renovated, Jeffery maintains. Its shade overhang has been filled in, and its ostentatious new entrance door is more corporate than arty. Sakellar's award-winning Catalina High School was saved a decade ago only after fierce lobbying by a coalition of architectural preservationists and the fortuitous intervention of a federal desegregation judge. Unmoved by architectural arguments, the judge declined to allow Tucson Unified School District to knock down its only high school with a racially balanced student population.

The local chapter of the American Institute of Architects is worried enough that its members made modernism the focus of Architecture Week. Leading Phoenix modernist Will Bruder gives a keynote address Thursday evening, and a Sunday home tour will send aficionados to modern works old and new. Jeffery's Saturday lecture at Wilmot Library will zero in on Brown, Wilde and Sakellar, and "go back to the early 20th century, talk about style influences and bring it up to the next generation of modernists," including contemporary Tucson architects Les Wallach, Rick Joy and Wilson Peterson.

He's giving the lecture at Sakellar's 1964 Wilmot Library, because the building's future is murky, Jeffery said. On a list of public buildings scheduled for an undefined "upgrade"--a term "vague enough that it could be moved or renovated"--the Wilmot virtually sums up the period's desert modernism. It has "deep overhangs and high clerestory windows," Jeffery and Nequette note in their book, "...(a) low horizontal position on the desert ... ramada-like forms ... a landscaped entry courtyard and an open floor plan." Floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the garden "erase(s) the distinction between exterior and interior spaces."

Private modernist homes followed the same principles, on a modest scale. Unlike today's palaces of conspicuous consumption--the more square feet, the better--the early modern houses were relatively small. Their size was partly driven by a "postwar shortage of materials," Jeffery says, but the high-minded mid-century architects also followed a "social ethic of housing that was not about excess."

Brown's 1952 Sky Shade House, featured on the tour, didn't require multiple patios, as today's show houses do. Instead, Brown constructed a single semi-circular patio around a semi-circular Arizona room with glass walls. But to allow the one patio to be used in all seasons and at all times of day, he installed a system of moving metal shades that easily be rolled from one place to another. He called it a "revolving porch."

The current disenchantment with modest modernism is not unlike a previous generation's contempt for Tucson's 19th-century Mexican buildings during the bad old days of urban renewal, Jeffery believes. The architects are trying to "educate the public and raise awareness that the modern period of Tucson's history is equally valid. We went through the same process in the late '60s and '70s."

The city succeeded in bulldozing the heart of the city's central barrio, arguing that its 100-year-old adobes were worthless.

"People had to say, 'Our barrio buildings are unique. They're not blight.' It took an alternate voice. ... The same thing needs to be said about the '50s."

As part of that alternative voice, a new Modern Architecture Preservation Project has begun. Jeffery and a colleague, Chris Evans, are conducting a "windshield survey" of the early modern buildings that remain. On their travels, they have found quirky modernist works renovated beyond recognition, tricked out to look Taco Deco.

A cool "Jetson's modern motel on Oracle is now La Posada," he says. "It's been Santa Fe-ized with brown stucco."

Once they have a list drawn up, they'll conduct a "context study to explain why certain buildings are important. We'll publish it on a Web site, and we want to do a short and sweet publication."

The work of modernist preservation may be helped by generational change, Jeffery says. Baby boomers and their elders may look back toward wood-floored bungalows, charming Queen Annes and stained-glass Victorians. But kids who grew up in Tucson's picture-window ranches are nostalgic for the sliding glass doors, concrete block and open floor plans of their childhood.

"Young people relate to these buildings," he says. "Their memories are attached to them."