A Neighborhood Stroll
Get to Know Tucson Through Its 17 Historic Districts
Newcomers might be forgiven for thinking that Tucson is brand-new, what with home developments sprouting up on every edge of the city. But in fact, the Old Pueblo boasts 17 National Historic District neighborhoods. These charming districts chronicle a long stretch of the city's history, starting with the 19th century downtown barrios of old Mexican times and continuing up to plush mid-20th-century developments with open desert landscaping. In between Tucsonans built Victorian-age railroad neighborhoods and turn-of-the-century bungalow districts fringing the University of Arizona. There's even a neighborhood with the feel of rural Mexico.
El Presidio boasts of being Tucson's oldest neighborhood. It was here that the Irish mercenary Hugo O'Conor established a presidio, or fort, in 1775 to help the Spanish ward off Apaches on this far northern frontier of New Spain. The fort is long gone, but 19th-century Mexican adobe row houses still dominate several of the neighborhood's blocks. Located just north of the downtown government center, El Presidio has 80 contributing properties on 12 blocks, most dating from the mid-19th century to 1912, the year of statehood. Transformed adobes—later residents added pitched roofs and front porches—and craftsman houses share streets with law offices and brand-new row houses constructed in a traditional style.
Barrio Histórico, south of the government and convention centers, is a remnant of the old Mexican barrio that once lay outside the presidio walls. (Barrio Libre, or free zone, is a name for one portion of the district.) Classic Sonoran adobe row houses, in a rainbow of colors, front the streets. Dating from the mid to late 1800s, the houses also include transformed Sonorans and red-brick Queen Annes. About 225 contributing properties enliven 20 blocks, where new construction is also underway.
Located several miles east of the city center along the Rillito River and Pantano Wash, the lush floodplain of Fort Lowell made an ideal dwelling place for Hohokam Indians from about AD 300 to 1250. The US Army built a fort here in 1873 after the city begged the military to move its rowdy soldiers away from their downtown quarters. But the fort was short-lived. In 1891, after the end of the Indian wars, the army abandoned it. Mexican farming families took over the buildings and constructed more adobes of their own, creating a new village called El Fuerte. Mormon farmers came along too. Today the adobes sitting haphazardly amidst the mesquite trees retain a rural Mexican feel. Thirty contributing properties share the 150 acres with new luxury houses.
Back downtown, Armory Park sprouted east of the abandoned military plaza, on what's now 6th Avenue. Once the railroad rolled into town in 1880, the neighborhood, just south of the tracks, became home to railroad executives and workers. Loaded up with glass, wood, and all manner of non-local building materials, the trains helped transform Tucson's architecture. Executives built East Coast-style red-brick houses with pitched roofs, porches, and front yards on the main streets; the workers lived in modest homes close together along the alleys. Some 450 contributing properties occupy 30 blocks, most of them built between 1880 and 1920. A new development at the east end emulates the historic styles.
West University, sandwiched between downtown and the university, sprawled from Speedway Boulevard to 6th Street as Tucson's first suburb. The University of Arizona began in 1885 on a plot of land then considered way out of town; houses for the middle and upper middle classes began popping up just west of the new college between 1890 and 1930. West University has a few transformed Sonoran adobes, but the majority of the houses are appealing California bungalows in wood, or stuccoed brick houses with pitched roofs. Sidewalks, front porches, and tidy front yards filled with flowers dress up the neighborhood. Sixty blocks strong, this large district features 600 contributing houses, as well as the pedestrian-friendly Fourth Avenue Shopping District.
North of West University lies the more modest Feldman's Addition, located north of Speedway Boulevard and west of Park Avenue. Built in the first three decades of the 20th century, Feldman's cottages include wooden-floored bungalows, Spanish Colonial stuccos, and craftsman houses. The narrow, deep lots nowadays are home to some 355 contributing properties, but the long yards have allowed many student rentals to go up out back. St. Luke's in the Desert in the middle of the neighborhood was once one of Tucson's many sanitariums for tuberculosis patients—it's now a retirement home.
Closer to downtown, just east of 4th Avenue and north of the tracks, sits Iron Horse Historic District, another railroad neighborhood. Built from about 1890 to 1908, Iron Horse has always been a mix of rentals and small houses in assorted styles from Sonoran adobe to Queen Anne. The Southern Pacific rail employees who once lived here had to obey the “one mile rule”—the train company required them to live close enough to hear the whistle blow, calling them into work. Nowadays there are 178 contributing properties.
East of Iron Horse, in between Euclid and Park Avenues, lie the nine small blocks of Pie Allen, named for an early Tucson merchant. Railroad workers also lived here north of the tracks, in small houses built between 1880 and 1936. At one time they made up 60% of the neighborhood's population. The remaining historic houses, tucked between student apartment complexes, tend toward the usual period mix of adobe Sonoran transitionals, Queen Annes, and bungalows.
John Spring has always enjoyed ethnic diversity. Located west of Stone Avenue just north of downtown, it was home to Yaqui Indians, Mexicans, Chinese, and African-Americans by 1900. After Tucson opened its segregated elementary school here in 1917, the neighborhood attracted numerous middle-class black families. Constructed mostly between 1896 and 1917, the neighborhood has a mix of modest adobes and more elaborate brick houses. Today the old school is being renovated as a museum and cultural center.
Sam Hughes, the sought-after tree-lined neighborhood east of the university, began life around 1918 with residences for tourists. Houses in an appealing combination of styles continued to be built up to about 1953. The eclectic mix of 1,226 contributing properties includes the popular mission revival, inspired by California churches, and pueblo revival, a reworking of Indian dwellings, as well as craftsman, international, and ranch. Historic Sam Hughes Elementary, 23.6-acre Himmel Park, a library, a public swimming pool, and the retail stores and cafés of 6th Street are in the heart of the neighborhood.
El Encanto Estates, east of Country Club Road and north of Broadway Boulevard, is an upscale neighborhood developed between 1928 and 1941. Deliberately designed to attract wealthy residents, particularly from the East, El Encanto has a formal symmetrical pattern of curving streets and romantic houses meant to evoke the Southwest. Deed restrictions limited the styles to large Spanish Colonial and pueblo revival houses, and called for spacious lots with lush landscaping. Palm trees abound. Fifty-three of the neighborhood's 145 single-family houses are contributing properties.
South of El Encanto, Colonia Solana went up between 1928 and 1949. Like its neighbor to the north, Colonia Solana was always intended to attract the rich. But unlike El Encanto, full of green lawns and exotic flowers, Colonia Solana has only native desert plants. Its irregular, curvilinear streets follow the contours of the desert and washes. Some modern and ranch houses mix in with the neo-classical revival homes and Spanish Colonial revivals. The district has 53 contributing properties.
El Montevideo is a small slice tucked between El Con Mall and Alvernon Road. Built primarily from 1930 to 1945, its 43 contributing houses run the gamut from Spanish Colonial revival to ranch to modern. Famed architect Josias Joesler designed several Montevideo homes. Lots of desert cactus line the quiet streets.
Indian House is another tiny neighborhood, close to another mall. North of busy Park Place on East Broadway Boulevard, Indian House stands as a hidden remnant of Tucson's desert past. Dirt roads meander between large lots filled with undisturbed creosote and cactus. Its five or six houses were constructed in the 1930s, drawing on Sonoran ranch and pueblo styles. Its most famous resident, McCune says, was pianist Van Cliburn.
Catalina Vista got its start as early as 1924, but it already took the automobile into account. Located in midtown, south of Grant Road and east of Campbell Avenue, this neighborhood of wide curving streets and generous lots is designed to accommodate both people and cars. But it also subscribes to City Beautiful planning principles: small parks, landscaped medians, and traffic roundabouts. The 274 contributing properties, dating from 1924 to 1962, represent a variety of historic revival styles, as well as classic American red-brick ranch and art moderne. Famous resident Margaret Sanger had her house designed by leading Tucson modernist Arthur Brown.
Blenman-Elm is one of Tucson's most recently designated historic neighborhoods. West of Country Club Road and north of Speedway Boulevard, the large district of 900 contributing houses dates from the 1920s to the 1950s. Its houses range from Spanish Colonial revival to brick ranch. Even as one of the newest historic districts, Blenman-Elm's best traits hearken back to some of the oldest. Arranged in a grid pattern, Blenman-Elm has landscaped front yards, houses set back a short, friendly distance from the street, and sidewalks that encourage walking and camaraderie among the neighbors.
Designated in February 2005, San Clemente shines as Tucson's “newest” historic neighborhood. Bounded by Broadway Boulevard on the north and Alvernon Way on the west, the neighborhood consists of 225 contributing properties ranging in style from Spanish Colonial revival to Sonoran ranch. The neighborhood, which began being built in the 1920s, really boomed in the 40s and 50s once the Depression subsided. Like its neighbor to the west, Colonia Solana, the district sports a combination of curvilinear and grid-patterned streets that help slow traffic and foster community spirit.
Award-winning journalist Margaret Regan frequently writes about Tucson's architectural history.
Learn more about Tucson in A Guide to Tucson Architecture, by Anne M. Nequette and R. Brooks Jeffery, published by the University of Arizona Press. Available at local bookstores or online at www.uapress.arizona.edu. $22.95