Space Age Whimsy

Tucson Modernism Week delves into our town’s mid-century modernist architecture

Fifty-two years ago, in the Space Age-era of astronauts and pillbox hats, Sambo's Pancake House wanted an up-to-minute look for a new restaurant on Tucson's Sunshine Mile.

The company knew exactly who to hire: Ronald Bergquist, a Santa Barbara architect who had already given an exuberant Jetsons' treatment to one diner in Tucson and plenty in California.

Bergquist cooked up an asymmetrical new Sambo's with roofs that swooped, lunettes that sparkled and colors that glowed candy-bright. In the orange interior, moon lamps dangled over the booths, and the counter seats swiveled.

The good news is that the 1964 diner has survived, though it was toned down over the years. The even better news is that it's being renovated back to its original condition to house the retro new Welcome Diner.

The place has a "wonderful, expressive, whimsical design that captures the spirit of Tucson," says Demion Clinco, executive director of the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation, which runs Tucson Modernism Week.

The diner is at 902 E. Broadway, a prominent location near the entrance to downtown. And in light of the fact that the city has decided to widen Broadway–home of the Sunshine Mile–despite the protests of preservationists and architects, it's nice to have at least one success, Clinco says. "It's really wonderful to see a great example of adaptive re-use."

Known most recently as Chaffin's, the diner has been bought by a pair of Phoenix restaurateurs, Michael Babcock and Sloane McFarland. Working with Tucson architect Page Repp, the team consulted old photos and blueprints to remake the Welcome in the image of Sambo's.

To celebrate a rare preservation victory, Tucson Modernism Week will stage a free tour and reception at the diner on Thurs., Oct. 6, from 6:30 to 8 pm.

The Welcome visit is just one of dozens of events during Tucson Modernism Week, a popular annual event now its fifth year.

"If people didn't come, we wouldn't continue to have it," Clinco jokes, "but there's a broad interest in architectural and history and heritage in Tucson. The '50s and '60s here were a rich era of cultural production," with local artists, architects and designer making buildings, art, jewelry and clothing "with a distinctive Southwest sensibility."

An extravaganza of tours, lectures, exhibitions, movies and parties, the week includes the crowd-pleasing Vintage Trailer show on the plaza outside the Tucson Convention Center, on Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 1 and 2; an unusual architectural bus trip to Nogales, Ariz. on Saturday, Oct. 8, to see its unsung modernist buildings; and a closing party Oct. 8 at the spacey Flandrau Planetarium, complete with a fashion show of outfits the astronaut's spouses might have worn.

Many of the lectures will take place in architecturally significant locations around town, including, surprisingly perhaps, the Tucson Police Dept. headquarters. All lectures on Saturday, Oct. 1, will be inside the 1972 brutalist concrete structure by William Wilde, a prominent Tucson architect who also designed the Tucson Museum of Art.

The following Saturday, Oct. 8, all the lectures will be at 1951 Faith Lutheran Church, 3925 E. Fifth St., a 1951 work by the much-admired Tucson architect Art Brown.

Here's a tiny sampling of the cornucopia of events. For a complete schedule, see


American Modern Architecture in Alfred Hitchcock's Cinematic Space. The week's opening event is a free lecture by architectural historian Christine Madrid French, who describes Hitchcock's penchant for filming "suspenseful chase scenes, heart-stopping moments and romantic interludes against the backdrop of American modernist architecture." 6 p.m., Friday, Sept. 30, at Leo Rich Theatre (designed by Cain Nelson Ware in 1971), 260 S. Church Ave. in the Tucson Convention Center.

Googie: When Modernism Was Popular. Architect and historian Alan Hess lectures on Googie, the light-hearted architectural aesthetic that bloomed in the postwar West–and gave birth to Sambo's/Welcome Diner. Once excoriated by critics, Googie is now valued and even loved. 10:30 a.m., Saturday, Oct. 8. Faith Lutheran Church. $5

Icon–Brown on Brown. Famed architect Art Brown, a pioneer of energy-efficient desert design who used simple, honest materials, will be memorialized by his son, architect Gordon Brown, in a slide lecture at Faith Lutheran Church, one of his father's iconic buildings. 1:30 p.m., Sat., Oct. 8. $5


Thunderbird: The Silverwork of Frank Patania exhibits modernist jewelry by the late artist (1899 to 1964), who was based in Tucson and Santa Fe. Opening reception, 7 p.m., Friday, Sept. 30, in the TCC lobby; exhibition continues 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Sat. and Sun., Oct 1 and 2.

Mid-Century Modern Expo Marketplace, will offer for sale vintage furniture, home wares and other objects from a variety of vendors, in the TCC meeting room. Opening reception, 7 p.m., Friday, Sept. 30; contines 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sat. and Sun., Oct. 1 and 2.

Vintage Trailer Show runs 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., Sat. and Sun., Oct. 1 and 2, in the TCC's outdoor plaza, aka, the Eckbow Landscape, a 1973 work by landscape architect Garrett Eckbow. $10.


Modernism Week Home Tour. Six Tucson houses are on the self-guided tour, running from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Sat., and Sun., Oct. 1 and 2. Participants pick up a map at the TCC starting at 9 a.m. The tour includes two Art Brown houses, one in Sam Hughes and the other in Catalina Vista; a Howard Harrenstein circular house in the Foothills from 1962; a Tom Gist eastside property that mixes glass walls and burnt adobe; and William Lester Pritchet's own home. A sixth house is in the Windsor Park subdivision by David Swanson, a neighborhood of 125 mid-century ranch houses. $25.

Modernism on the Line – The Mid-Century Marvels of Nogales. Clinco leads a bus tour to an Arizona city whose architecture – until now – has been ignored. "On both sides of the border there's very progressive mid-century architecture," he says.

On the itinerary are private houses by William Wilde, as well as work by architect Benny Gonzalez: his own home, the Nogales Public Library, and the VFW post, a "circular building on a hill with windows looking down on Nogales." The $100 ticket includes bus ride and lunch.