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Protecting Our Sense of Place

In the late 1920s, native Tucsonan John W. Murphey bought nearly 8,000 acres of federal and state land in the foothills far north of Tucson; the area we now refer to as Catalina Foothills.  Over the next 50 years, this legendary land speculator developed the land, building roads, homes, churches, schools and shopping centers.  Murphey occasionally sold parcels of land, but imposed 50-year deed restrictions that limited architectural styles, colors and building heights that laid the foundation for our picturesque suburban area that is distinctive due to its sense of place.

The architectural styles seen around our community explore the idea of “place”.  In many of the designs previous architects and/or home designers focused primarily on mountain and desert views, the light, quality and use of materials, and the implementation of passive solar design concepts and more comfortable and energy efficient living environments.  Dating back to the late 1920s when Murphey brought architect Josias Jossler from Los Angeles to Tucson to interpret Murphey’s vision of elite communities and buildings portraying the various historical revival styles popular in other parts of the West, previous architects of our community developed the Modern Movement in architecture in southern Arizona.

History, especially architectural history, is quite often threatened with demolition or radical modification, such that the sense of place is no longer distinctive but homogenized.  Cities and towns once distinctive for the architecture, ethnic populace, local food and culture have become wastelands of fast food restaurants and strip malls filled with imported brick-a-brack.  Neighborhoods that evidenced a “particularity” have been modified to become common brick and stucco structures without personality.  The community becomes solastalgic – the grief and anger people feel when their environment has been ravaged.

The best way to fight the homogenization of our community is to protect our Catalina Foothills particularity.  Encouraging preservation of historic resources by documenting a property’s historic significance is a method for avoiding solastalgia and preserving our sense of place.  The national criteria for historic designation, developed by the National Register of Historic Places, require that a cultural resource (property) must:  1.) be at least 50 years old, 2.) possess historical significance, and 3.) retain sufficient integrity (i.e., have not been altered too greatly or irreversibly).  Historic significance is defined at the local, State, and/or National levels.

A simplified explanation of the benefits of Historic District designation - if your property is located within a designated Historic District in Tucson, your property was most likely assessed for its historic status. Properties that are deemed "contributing" properties to the historic district are considered historic properties.  They are also eligible for tax credits.  Properties deemed "non-contributing" are not considered historic properties and are not eligible for tax credits. Historic designation has also proven to be a stabilizing factor for communities since owners of historic buildings generally take greater pride in their neighborhoods and work to maintain their properties. In fact, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, recent studies suggest that historic districts nationwide may have a higher resale value than comparable properties and neighborhoods not within a designated district.

The process of creating a Historic District is somewhat arduous, but quite doable. Tucson has almost 30 historic districts, designated at the National level by the Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP).  There are 3 additional NRHP Historic Districts currently pending (as of Dec. 2011).  None of the current or pending Historic Districts are currently located in the Catalina Foothills footprint (as of Dec. 2011).

The Catalina Foothills Association is interested in pursuing Historic District designation for areas of its community where such may be possible.  Toward that end, if your residential property is at least 50 years old, you are asked to, via email on the CFA website, submit your address, date of “permitted” construction, and architect or home designer name to the CFA History Committee.  Submissions are encouraged for the remaining months of calendar year 2012. 

There are over two-dozen architects who in the past 50-plus years have significantly contributed to the Modern Movement of architecture in the greater Tucson area.  Examples include Arizona’s first female architect Anne Rysdale, the earliest application of burnt adobe in modern architecture by Scholer Sakellar Fuller, designs inspired and influenced by the works of Frank Lloyd Wright, a house used as a teaching example in the textbook “Drawing as a Means to Architecture” (1968), Judith Chafee’s unique and innovative response to the desert sun, and many others who provided a regional architectural interpretation of modern desert living with a respect for Tucson’s desert context.

If you would like to assist your community in preserving our picturesque suburban area, distinctive due to its sense of place, consider conducting a bit of personal research and informing the History Committee of your home’s potential historical status.

Paul Wheeler

Chair of CFA History Committee