Tucson Museum of Art’s Historic Block, a tour!

Hello from sunny Tucson!   Our family has officially been Tucsonians for two years,  and what a busy busy two years it has been.  I have been working part time as an architectural historian, and spend a good deal of time exploring the city with my sassy silly twins.  After almost two and a half years, I only now feel like I kind of have this parenting thing under control.  Of course as soon as I say that, my son spills an entire full can of paint on the kitchen floor and runs through it and all over my carpet…   But we also manage to not do too much damage at local museums and historical sites from time to time.  And what is better than a museum or a historical site?  A museum AT a historical site!  This brings us to the Tucson Museum of Art’s Historic Block.  Here, you find La Casa Cordova (1848), the Romero House (1860), the Stevens/Duffield House (1865), the Edward Nye Fish House (1868) and the J. Knox Corbett House (1907).  The Corbett House is a mission revival style home, but the other four are all of a local vernacular design called the Sonoran row house.

Sonoran row houses were a Spanish style of neighborhood development.  Large common courtyards were shared by square single story buildings broken into multiple living quarters.  Usually the homes started with a single room and rooms were added in a linear fashion, enfilade, as needed.  The homes were built with local materials- thick adobe walls with a flat roof made of timber vigas (beams) and latillas (lathing) which in Tucson was saguaro cacti ribs.  The roof was completed with a layer of earth, usually about a foot in depth, with canales to help drain water.  A manta (ceiling cloth) was often added to the underside of the vigas in an attempt to deal with the frequent leaks.  With the entire yard centrally contained, the front exterior walls would feature little to no setback from the streets.  Existing examples of Sonoran row houses feature stone block foundations with adobe walls, and exposed timber lintels (usually of mesquite) above narrow doors and windows.  The interiors featured multiple rooms connected by doorways, many with a zaguan, or central hallway, that ran between the street and the central courtyard.  Coupled with the thick earthen walls, high ceilings created a comfortable interior which was cool in the day and warm at night (at least by desert standards).  Fireplaces were also located on interior walls so that during the winter their heat energy would be stored in the adobe walls.  These homes created a high density, pedestrian friendly urban design.  The use of local materials and design features (high thermal mass of the walls, cross ventilation and etc) made this a very energy efficient and environmentally friendly house.

And then the railroad and more US settlers arrived.  When the railroad came to Tucson, it made non-native building materials available, expanding the construction styles to accommodate tastes from both the east and west coast.  The late 1800s saw transformed Sonorans where Victorian embellishments and, more importantly, water proof gabled roofs were added to row homes.  American Territorial houses went through design phases, first still being built adjacent to the street but slowly being setback with large porches added to the front, bungalows, as well as Victorians, etc.  Queen Annes, Neoclassical and California Missionary Revivals began to appear, and by the early 1900s the styles of housing in Tucson mirrored national trends.  (All these types of homes are present within today’s historically registered El Presidio neighborhood, check out this slideshow for images of the neighborhood).

Sadly, much of historic Tucson was lost to urban renewal, which makes the TMA Historic Block more compelling.  You cannot talk about any of these houses without discussing urban renewal and the development of TMA and there is a bit of a sordid history involved.  We will take the time to look at each house and talk about how it came to be part of TMA.  So come along, our first stop will be at La Casa Cordova.

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And if you find yourself loving Sonoran row houses as much as I do, check out this great blog where you can see the restoration of a Sonoran row house here in Tucson.  You can even stay at the guest house!