From the NYTimes.com
“People tend to come to Tucson to figure something out,” Demion Clinco remarked one cool desert evening, beneath a sky so boundless it made all things seem possible. We were seated on the terrace of the 85-year-old Arizona Inn, drinking anachronistic cocktails. The cocktails produced an optimism of their own.
Pulling on his bourbon old-fashioned, Mr. Clinco, a native Tucsonan and former member of the state House of Representatives, added a fillip, “When they do, they tend to leave.”
That I had come to Tucson to figure something out was evident. It remained to be seen precisely what. I arrived — as snowbirds have for much of the state’s recent history — fleeing a bitter and prolonged East Coast winter, a season during which the blackened mounds of ice blocking city streets and crosswalks, when they finally melted, left behind a tideline of crud.
Somehow that trash felt metaphoric. The varied detritus of urban living also clusters in your psyche: small angers, embedded resentments, everyday slights, the guy looking cross-eyed at you on the E train. Like street trash, this stuff is hard to recycle; I needed, as we all occasionally do, to flee the bedeviling daily issues and light out.
Escape is what led me to Tucson, a fact unlikely to bring joy to the hearts of its civic boosters, who would perhaps prefer visitors to focus on the positive aspects of this midsize Southwestern city. I am, assuredly, mindful of those — aware that Tucson is well situated in a valley basin geologically lofted to an altitude (2,600 feet) that in my mind qualifies it as high desert; that its signal feature is a series of jagged mountain ranges enclosing its flanks like a palisade; that its extravagant skies, particularly at twilight, have a way of vaulting the spirits in a manner I have seldom experienced anyplace else besides Rome.
Tucson is no Rome, however. It is a dusty outpost on the fringes of the Sonoran Desert, a cyclical boomtown that suffered badly in the financial crash of 2008 and that, even beforehand, had in many ways seen better days. It is a grid city of long avenues and abundant strip malls; a place whose largest employers are a university, the military, the government and a maker of missile systems.
It is a mini-metropolis whose proximity to the Mexican border has resulted not only in a shadow economy but also some fairly stark racial and economic bifurcations. It is a blue dot in a red state, a college town whose seasonal population of students and retirees departs this month in a mass migration that leaves tumbleweed vacancies in its wake.
It is also a city whose loopy retail landscape skews heavily toward yoga studios, thrift shops and vape stores. And one of the city’s better-kept secrets is how often these places occupy structures that could easily be counted among the more significant examples of mid-20th century architecture in the country. That is, if anyone were bothering to look.
I had first taken note of this curiosity some years back when attending the annual American Gem Trade Association fair in Tucson. In reality one central fair and an agglomeration of 40 or so satellites, where dealers trade in the countless minerals of which the earth is formed (and also a certain amount of random space flotsam), the fair is the place to be if you are ever in the market for an eight-carat Mozambique ruby, a Brazilian rock crystal carved like a phallus or a fragment of a meteorite.
Increasingly, on what have become annual pilgrimages to the gem fair (including one in February) I’ve found myself straying from the parking lots crammed with geodes, beads and boulders, and venturing out to explore the local architectural treasures. Back home, whenever New York threatens to ruin my day, I follow my thoughts back to my random excursions around Tucson and to memories of its illimitable skies, dry, clear air and its abundant supply of wizened drifters right out of Richard Avedon’s “In the American West.”
I reflect on how deeply I enjoy the ramshackle dispersion of the city and on the fact that I now know which Mexican handicrafts store to visit if I am ever in need of a six-foot ceramic pineapple from Michoacán. I think about a photo gallery I like as much for its location near a funky tattoo parlor as for its adventurous exhibitions, a diner in a movie-ready structure unaltered since the 1960s, and the thrift shops of which Tucson boasts more than it has hipster brunch spots.
I recall, too, the pleasures of ordering a heaping platter of huevos rancheros at my favorite hipster brunch spot, the Five Points Market, situated on an intersection whose other notable landmarks include a florist selling $1 roses and a used-car dealership with the motto “Ugly but Honest.”
By the time Clyde Wanslee came up with that memorable slogan in the 1930s, the old pioneer town of Tucson had already entered a period of unprecedented expansion. Figures compiled by the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation peg Tucson’s 1940 population at 35,000, a figure that by 1960 had soared to 212,000. While it’s not surprising that housing starts flourished along with a rapidly growing city, what strikes a visitor now is how little the accompanying boom owed to structural archetypes then dominating postwar development back East.
While builders on the Eastern Seaboard assembled cookie-cutter colonials by the thousands, Tucson developers instead adapted the austerities of International Style Modernism to their city’s magnificent though challenging terrain. Some preservationists claim Tucson possesses some of the densest concentrations of midcentury Modernist architecture in the Southwest, reluctantly conceding that the finest examples are not nearly as easy to find as similar ones clustered throughout entire midcentury neighborhoods in Phoenix, just two hours away.
Even Mr. Clinco — who was instrumental in resuscitating the drowsy Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation in 2008 — grants that about the only way to eyeball prime Modernist gems by architects like Tom Gist, Anne Rysdale, Robert Swaim or Arthur T. Brown that lie scattered in the foothills or secluded in stands of saguaro is on one of the guided tours his group conducts every autumn during its Tucson Modernism Week. Yet they’re quick to note that plenty of astonishingly individualistic architecture lies scattered throughout the city. All that is needed to find them are wheels and a map.
To guide me I used a slick, informative foldout called “Broadway: Born Modern,” which is one in a series of fine guides the preservationist group has produced to find Tucson’s varied wonders, from its bars and drive-ins to its houses of worship, and also the city’s abundant neon signage (Dirk J. Arnold’s “Gateway Saguaro” on the Miracle Mile being perhaps the most emblematic example).
The specific focus of “Broadway: Born Modern” is a checkerboard assortment of midcentury holdouts still standing lonely but proud amid the big-box stores and stucco strip malls on a stretch of Broadway from Euclid Avenue to Country Club Road. Here, on the two-mile Sunshine Mile — linking what was once the city’s suburban eastern reaches to its historic downtown — desert Modernists evolved a quirky utilitarian vernacular all their own.
Cantilevered roofs canopy glass curtain walls, shading them from the harsh summer sun. Blank fieldstone walls form the facades of cool interior caves. Soaring organic shapes vault sculpturally from the sere landscape like the ramparts of a cathedral consecrated to some wacko progressive religion.
A stark white, cast-concrete structure built as a Valley National Bank is now a Chase. Credit John Burcham for The New York Times
One such structure, created in 1971 by Bernard Friedman and John Whitmire of Friedman and Jobusch Architects, stands sentry at a corner of Broadway and Country Club Road. Directly opposite it on Broadway is the historic Broadway Village, a gentle ensemble of brick hacienda-style structures designed in the 1930s by the Swiss-born Josias Joesler, arguably Tucson’s most celebrated architect. In the contrast between the two can be traced a shift in a city’s ambitions and a radical progression away from Tucson’s pueblo past toward an undefined future in the space age.
The more recent of the two is a stark white, cast-concrete building set back from a broad plaza ornamented with a large sculptural amoeba; it has a high columned overhang, a soaring glazed expressionist frieze to bring in light and overall an air of unassailable exuberance.
Built as a Valley National Bank, it is now a Chase. There are Chase branches all over Tucson, of course, most with drive-through windows to facilitate the American dependence on the internal combustion engine. It pleases me, though, when I’m in Tucson to drive up Broadway and park the rental just to conduct my insignificant banking in a building that seems to frame and elevate the puniest of transactions.
I feel expansive making an A.T.M. withdrawal. And “expansiveness and optimism,” as Andie Zelnio, of the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation, once told me, are signal characteristics of 20th-century boomtowns of the American West.
“Partly what attracted many of us to the West in the first place is that sense of space and possibility,” said Ms. Zelnio, an Illinois native and architect who lived in New York and Los Angeles before relocating to Tucson permanently in 2004. Add to that an unfettered ability to think and design in novel ways, as many architects did when faced with a landscape both wondrous and seemingly inhospitable.
The results of their experiments stud Broadway for most of its length, delightful and largely unremarked. Among my favorites are Ms. Rysdale’s elegantly restrained geometric Haas Building of 1957; Juan Worner y Bas’s quirky 1961 Murphey Building, with its scalloped parapet and terra-cotta statues of philosophers and saints; the adobe brick Broadmoor Medical Center; and the classic open-front facade Mr. Friedman designed in 1954 to house Hirsh’s Shoes.
“In 1954 we stood alone,” read a tagline in an advertisement for Hirsh’s Shoes I came across in a program printed to accompany Tucson Modernism Week. “Sixty years later, we still stand alone.”
Happily for Hirsh’s Shoes and other imperiled local landmarks, that is not altogether the case. Since being restarted, the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation has committed passionately to identifying, recording and conserving unsung local treasures, from a historic courtyard motel to a refined and much degraded center city park by the landscape architect Garrett Eckbo.
“The first thing people want to know when they come here is, ‘Where is the historic area?’ That’s what they want to see,” said Hannah Glasston, a preservationist and director of the estimable Etherton Gallery, whose inventory includes both contemporary photography and vintage works by photographers as disparate as Weegee, Edward Sheriff Curtis and Ansel Adams.
When she first came to Tucson from upstate New York to attend college in the 1970s, “I was attracted to obvious historic buildings,” Ms. Glasston said, referring to guidebook destinations like the Cathedral of St. Augustine, a stupefying encrusted monument to the Mexican Baroque. “But then I started to see stuff that made me think, ‘What are these things?’ ” Once her eye adjusted to the determined quiddities of her adopted hometown, she said, “Even weird cinder-block strange things from the 1950s started to look fabulous.”
Though on recent trips I’ve made it a modest goal to seek out some of Tucson’s more oddball Modernist structures, I tend to lodge at one of its gentler traditional ones. Built in 1930 by Isabella Greenway, Arizona’s first congresswoman and a lifelong friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, the Arizona Inn was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1988 and is now run by Will Conroy, Ms. Greenway’s grandson.
Like much of the city, the Arizona Inn was hit hard by the 2008 crash, which obliged Mr. Conroy to lay off more than a third of his staff. Despite that, this unlikely hotelier (a Brooklyn-born screenwriter, he is the son of the novelist Frank Conroy) has somehow found the means and contrived a way to preserve the civilizing dimensions of this 14-acre oasis, with its manicured lawns, walled patios, book-filled guest rooms, beds of heirloom roses and an overall air of assiduously maintained gentility.
Whether most contemporary visitors find time to use the folding card tables tucked into each commodious guest room closet, their presence conjures up an era when people arrived at the inn by rail each winter, their trunks filled with the many costume changes required for daily rubbers of bridge, croquet matches or afternoon teas.
Dirk J. Arnold’s “Gateway Saguaro,” on the Miracle Mile is among the neon signage in the city. Credit John Burcham for The New York Times
With little to impinge on the fantasy of living like Gary and Rocky Cooper or the East Coast swells who routinely lodged at the Inn, I slow down there and fall into lazy routine. Yet while most guests tend to venture only rarely from the hotel’s seductive confines, I head out routinely on daily excursions to check out an eccentric city I’ve increasingly come to love.
I get my daily breakfast of poached eggs and bacon at Chaffin’s Family Restaurant — little changed except in name since it was erected in the Googie architecture style in 1964 as Sambo’s Pancake House — or else at another venerable greasy spoon called Bobo’s.
At Bobo’s, the clientele seems about evenly divided between solid middle-class locals, pajama-clad University of Arizona students soaking up last night’s toxins with cartwheel-size banana pancakes and heavily inked characters who look as if they had scraped up just enough change for a cup of Joe after posting bail.
I stop in at Bon, a boutique that the mother-and-daughter team of Bonnie and Crystal Flynt operate at the historic Five Points intersection to check out an always-evolving selection of design objects that meet their quirkily refined tastes. I troll the city’s many thrift stores, following the advice of my pal Laura Wills, a part-time Tucsonan whose Screaming Mimi’s vintage store in Manhattan is a way station in the life of 1960s satin sheaths or pearl-snap cowboy shirts unearthed at a Tucson Goodwill store and heading next to Burning Man. I stop into Tom’s Fine Furniture and Collectables, an antiques mall whispered about by midcentury furniture dealers all over the country, who threaten those who reveal their secret source with bodily harm.
Come lunchtime, I drive beneath Interstate 10 to the arid west side of the city, where hillsides are spiked with saguaros and where I once spotted a man at a roadside stand advertising his wares with a sign reading “Honey & Knives.”
My destination is Teresa’s Mosaic Cafe, a Mexican restaurant unpromisingly set behind a McDonald’s parking lot. Although, as Stephen Paul, the founder of Whiskey Del Bac, an award-winning mesquite-smoked single-malt distilled in Tucson, once authoritatively pointed out, “the best Mexican food in the country” is to be found on the city’s largely Latino south side, I remain a Teresa’s loyalist.
The reasons are simple. Despite its unpromising location this 31-year-old restaurant offers surprising vistas from the windows of the circular structure it occupies and serves huevos rancheros good enough that Bobby Flay once chose the place for a Food Network throw-down.
I prefer it at lunch, though, because by then Dora Robles has set up at a griddle near the center of the restaurant and begun patting and toasting the 500 or so tortillas she makes fresh daily: delicious wheat or corn wraps that provide packaging for Teresa’s brightly spiced enchiladas, the most efficient lunch-delivery system ever devised.
Heading out afterward, I often turn west onto Oracle Drive toward the Oro Valley and Tohono Chul Park, a small botanical garden on a patch of desert bought in the ’60s by Jean and Richard Wilson (a Yale-trained geologist) and later established as a nonprofit to save the land from mall developers. Not the least of the things I like about this ingeniously designed garden of arid zone flora are the rattlesnake warnings posted along its paths. Yet the real reason I visit is the center’s exhibition space, partly to check one of its fine and constantly changing art installations, but more candidly to pretend the Santa Fe-style adobe structure housing it is mine.
Given the limited number of fellow visitors I’ve encountered in a place built in 1937 for the memorably named John T. de Blois Wack, this delusion is not as hard to sustain as it may seem. From within its nobly proportioned parlor, where tall picture windows are set in walls of 18-inch-thick adobe, the view of saguaros framing wide skies is nothing shy of deluxe. “For about seven months a year,” Mr. Paul once told me, “Tucson is filled with the most spectacular, soulful light.”
I see no reason to dispute his estimation. Parking myself on a deep leather sofa at Tohono Chul not long ago, I gazed at the cloud armadas sailing above the largest desert in North America and suddenly recalled something Ms. Glasston, the Etherton Gallery director, had said.
“Why do people come to places like Tucson?” she asked, before offering a reply that struck me as central to any understanding of the American Southwest’s enduring allure. “When you come down to it, it’s pretty simple. We don’t like to be shoehorned into categories.” When you come down to it, neither do I.
Where to Stay
Except during the annual American Gem Trade Association fair, hotels at all price levels are abundant and easy to book in Tucson. Come February everything is block-booked, tariffs skyrocket and you’d be lucky to find a vacant storm drain.
With its 91 rooms set amid 14 manicured and walled acres, theArizona Innhas proved irresistible to patrons of many decades and, increasingly, an international clientele that includes the jeweler Ted Muehling, the London art dealer Maureen Paley and Francesca Amfitheatrof, the design director of Tiffany & Company.
The town is quiet, drowsy and distinctly on sale in the off-season. A suite recently listed on the inn’s website offered garden views, a king bed, a sitting room and an array of customary amenities (Wi-Fi, newspapers, CDs from the inn’s library and ice cream sundaes every afternoon by the pool, all free) for $149.
Where to Eat
The menu at the landmark Hotel Congress (311 East Congress Street, 520-622-8848) is solidly if blandly confined to American standards whereas Maynards Market & Kitchen (400 North Toole Avenue, 520-545-0557), in the old train station, favors American cooking and locally sourced ingredients inflected with a French accent.
Five Points Market & Restaurant (756 South Stone Avenue, 520-623-3888) is like a bit of Williamsburg dropped into a historic intersection in a funky but fast-developing part of town.
When Bobby Flay decided to stage a huevos rancheros throwdown for the Food Network, he chose Teresa’s Mosaic Cafe(2455 North Silverbell Road — behind McDonald’s — 520-624-4512) on the city’s arid west side. Super fresh and brightly spiced, the fare here is consistently tasty if not destined to set the culinary world on fire. In addition, Dora Robles stands at an exposed griddle set in the middle of the place, patting out and toasting 500 fresh tortillas by hand every day.
The Arizona Inn also has a restaurant, bar and terrace where it serves uncontroversial if uninspiring country-club type fare.
What to Do
A prominent fixture on the international art scene and one of the pre-eminent art and photo galleries in the Southwest, the Etherton Gallery(135 South Sixth Avenue, 520-624-7370) shows works of fine art photographers, paintings, prints, sculpture and mixed media by local and regional artists, and offers a wide selection of works by masters of photography like Ansel Adams, Edward Sheriff Curtis and Weegee.
At Bon, (760 South Stone Avenue, 520-795-2272, adjacent to the Five Points Market & Restaurant) the mother-and-daughter team of Bonnie and Crystal Flynt offer what their website calls a “selection of our favorite things,” including a well-edited array of clothes and candles and vintage textiles and greeting cards that could easily enough become your favorite things, as well.