Because of fresh water from the Santa Cruz River for drinking and farming, the area around present-day Tucson has seen human habitation for at least the past 12,000 years. We are not the first. And perhaps we will not be the last.
As a "city", Tucson really came into its own in the first decade of the 20th century, even though the city was legally incorporated in 1877. It never amounted to anything of importance until the Southern Pacific Railroad arrived in 1880. The railroad connected Tucson to the outside world. It brought hardware, lumber, and fresh produce at affordable prices. Even today, you can see how the architecture of the city changed after the arrival of the railroad. Read More
If that momentous event had not occurred, what is now Downtown Tucson would have remained a dusty, dirty, malodorous, and otherwise unpleasant desert village with fetid water and unpaved streets. When the rains came, the dusty roads turned to mud mixed with copious amounts of urine and manure.
Even after the railroad arrived, it took another quarter century for Tucson to develop into a small city. The primary downtown streets, Congress St. & Main Ave., were not even paved until 1912-13 when the population had surpassed 14,000. 19th century commercial buildings were mostly one or two-story adobe structures.
Most homes were pathetic hovels with dirt floors and mud roofs supported by saguaro ribs. But they had a wealth of rats, snakes, scorpions, fleas, cockroaches, spiders, and other bugs sharing space with their human hosts. Dense clouds of flies swarmed over every creature, dead or alive.
The only other Tucson event that could possibly rival the arrival of the Southern Pacific was the advent of modern air conditioning in the 1930's; although the technique of evaporative cooling had been know for millennia. The Fox Theater, completed in 1930, was the first commercial building in Tucson to have a type of modern air conditioning. And even then, it would be 30 years before the average Tucsonan could afford such a luxury. In the summer, locals often slept outdoors under a wet sheet in an effort to stay cool enough to sleep.
When the Southern Pacific Railroad arrived in 1880, Tucson had about 7,000 souls, predominantly Mexican, Tohono O'odham, or a mixture thereof. After the railroad, each of the next 12 decades would see significant population growth, mostly Anglo; and a corresponding decline in the water table.
By the late 1920's, the City's population exceeded 30,000 and downtown Tucson was a thriving Southwestern city with a viable middle class and even a few upscale stores, hotels, and restaurants.
Since before the turn of the century, Steinfeld's Department Store at Stone & Pennington was the heart of the growing, prosperous city. Whether Tucsonans wanted clothing, hardware, or groceries, Albert Steinfeld offered lots of variety at prices most folks could afford.
Mr. Steinfeld was so successful, he could afford to build a luxury hotel kitty corner to his department store. Completed in 1929, the year the Stock Market crashed, the Pioneer International Hotel boasted the largest ballroom in America.
The Cleveland Indians baseball team stayed at the Pioneer during their annual spring training. Wealthy tourists, dignitaries and celebrities were common guests at the Pioneer. It was the place for business meetings and conventions, luncheons, banquets, and parties.
So vibrant was downtown life that it could easily support two large department stores right across Pennington Street from each other. People came from all over Arizona and Northern Mexico to shop for fashionable clothing and one-of-a-kind imports at Don Carlos Jácome's (HAH-coh-meh) Department Store. In addition to Steinfeld's & Jácome's, downtown had a thriving J.C. Penney, F. W. Woolworth & Co., Montgomery Ward, and later in the same building, a Walgreens with a popular lunch counter, plus hundreds of smaller Downtown merchants.
Decline of Downtown
If only two events could be said to herald the decades-long decline of Downtown Tucson, perhaps it would be these. First, in 1967, Steinfeld's abandoned downtown for the suburbs and took a prominent place in the El Con Mall. Second, in 1970, a disastrous fire at the Pioneer Hotel killed 28 people, including Albert Steinfeld's son, Harold and wife Margaret, who resided in the 11th floor penthouse. With them died the elite social life of Downtown. By 1980, when Jacome's closed, so many Tucsonans had moved to the suburbs that Downtown was a mere shell of its former self. And so it would remain for decades.
2014: Signs of Re-Birth.
Today, anyone who has visited Downtown Tucson in the past 3 years is aware that something big is happening. Downtown is coming back to life. It's a painfully slow process to resuscitate an inner city, but in fits & spurts, it's happening; mostly through the vision and financial commitment of private individuals and corporations.
In the summer of 2014, Downtown will have a modern streetcar line connecting University Medical Center & the U of A in mid-town to the redeveloping Convento area west of the I-10 where Tucson had its origin. The convento was a fortified mission complex used to protect the west side of the flowing Santa Cruz River from Apache attacks. "Visionary" City leaders had it bulldozed in the late 1950s to make way for a landfill. Today Mercado San Agustin is there with many specialty shops, a weekly farmers' market, and the newly re-opened Agustin Kitchen where Iron Chef Ryan Clark creates his innovative culinary delights.
New and mostly upscale dining establishments are popping up along Congress Street in renovated 1920's, 30's, & 40's buildings that somehow managed to avoid the wrecking ball. Modern student housing on the east side of Downtown where Broadway meets 4th Avenue is adding youthful vitality to the area.
These most recent positive developments and many others in the works, take their place along side other significant renovations a decade ago, such as the beautifully restored Fox Theater and the old Southern Pacific Train Depot that houses Maynard's Market & Kitchen.
With all this "revitalization" going on, we thought it might be a good time to look back in time and see from whence we came. Donovan Durband, who works at Parkwise, the department in charge of parking for the City, has a private collection of colorized historical Downtown Tucson picture postcards that he has graciously agreed to share.
We, for our part, created photographs in December 2013 to replicate as closely as possible those images on Donovan's postcards that depict the City from the 1860's to the 1950's. Our intent is to update the modern photographs as significant changes to downtown occur, such as when the Modern Streetcar begins operation.
Downtown Tucson: Then & Now
Click On The Images To Enlarge
Barrio Viejo ca. 1860's
Like these old dwellings on the left, some survived urban redevelopment in what is now Barrio Viejo (the old neighborhood) just south of the Convention Center. Fortunately, a relatively few have been saved and restored, most notably by Betsy Rollings & her family. They own Cushing Street Bar & Restaurant, one of our favorites.
40 W. Broadway ca. 1868
Informal meetings of the Territorial Legislature were held here when Tucson was capital of Arizona Territory. It was in Charlie’s saloon that prominent Tucsonans officially organized the municipality of Tucson and officers were elected. It was in his own saloon that Charlie became one of Tucson first councilmen.
The Congress Hall Saloon was on the corner of Calle de la Alegria (Happiness Street) and Meyer Avenue. About 1870, Calle de la Alegria was renamed Congress Street to recognize the historical importance of Charlie’s saloon. Meyer Street between Congress & Cushing was eliminated when the Convention Center was built in the 1960's. Charlie's saloon was where La Placita office complex is today.
Charlie's place was a gambling house and saloon when owning a bar was an honorable profession. It was a prominent meeting place where miners, cattlemen, and other businessmen could transact business. The Congress Hall also served as a social center and the Tucson’s elite, such as they were, held “fancy” dances here too.
The Congress Hall Saloon was passed down to Charlie's sons in the early 1900s. We don’t know for certain when the Saloon closed, but it was torn down in 1912, the same year Arizona became a state and, ironically, the same year Congress Street was paved.
Old Pueblo Club ca. 1890.
The Old Pueblo Club was an association of Downtown business & professional men. It was incorporated in 1907 with sixty-nine charter members. Before incorporation, it was a bachelors’ club for several years, but they agreed to admit married men at the time of incorporation. In 1986, they began admitting women. The club dissolved soon thereafter.
Tucson Train Depot ca. 1890
Nothing surpasses the arrival of the Southern Pacific Railroad for influencing the future development of Tucson . You can see what the railroad meant to Tucson by visiting our Southern Arizona Transportation Museum at the Depot on Toole Street.
This mansion, built in 1900, became the home of Albert & Bettina Steinfeld in 1903. They owned and operated Steinfeld's Department Store at Stone & Pennington, but also had financial interests in banking, livestock, mining, and agriculture. This was the first home in Tucson to boast a bathtub with running water. Soon thereafter, the number of public bathhouses started to decline. It now serves as an office building. Back in the day, this stretch of North Main Avenue was lined with Tucson's finest homes and was referred to as "Snob Hollow". For a virtual tour of one of these historic mansions, you can view our original video of the Corbett House, one of several historical buildings owned and preserved by Tucson Museum of Art. Even better, visit our Tucson Art Museum and tour these earliest Tucson homes yourself.
Congress Looking East from Stone.
Congress Looking East from Church ca. 1910.
The streetcar in the scene below is in the intersection of Congress & Stone. Beginning in 1897, Tucson's first streetcars were pulled by mules. The first electric streetcars, like the one on this picture, started service in 1906. Note: Congress Street is still not paved so it's definitely pre-1912. No buildings in this scene survived past the 1920's.
The Fox Theater (above right) opened on April 11, 1930. It was the biggest party the small community of Tucson had ever seen. Congress Street was closed and waxed for dancing. There were four live bands, a live radio broadcast and free trolley rides. About 3,000 people bought advance tickets and enjoyed the show inside as well as out. The film "Chasing Rainbows," a MovieTone short, and a Mickey Mouse cartoon were well received by both audiences that evening, and the Fox Theater began its 40-year life at the center of Tucson’s entertainment scene. Competition from other venues, drive-ins and television in particular, along with vanishing downtown retail and housing, brought the Fox to a close in 1974. For the next 26 years the old, rundown building somehow managed to avoid the wrecking ball. Through private funds, the Fox Theater was lovingly restored to its art deco magnificence and re-opened on December 31, 2005. We enjoy performances there several time a year.
Congress Looking West from Stone ca. late 1890's.
The Owl's Club ca. 1902
Located on North Main in the elite Snob Hollow district, the Owl's Club was formed in 1886 by 13 wealthy bachelors. The men were tired of bad meals and uncomfortable living quarters, so they pooled their living expenses to improve their accommodations. The first home, the Owl's Nest, was on the present-day site of the Temple of Music and Art. The group's second location later became the Steinfeld mansion. A lively part of Tucson social life, the Owl's Club hosted galas, masked balls and parties. But by 1902, when the Owls moved here at 378 N. Main Avenue, all but three bachelors had married and moved out. The Owl's Club building is now a private residence and, as of December 2013, was for sale.
Pima County Courthouse
top left) Second Pima County Courthouse ca. 1905. (top right) Third Pima County Courthouse was built on the site of its predecessor in 1929. From the look of the parked automobiles, this image was created in the late 30's, or early 40's. Bank robber John Dillinger & his gang were arraigned here following their amazing capture by Tucson police in 1934.
Except for the Courthouse, none of the identifiable structures in the photograph survived to the present day.
Stone Looking North ca. 1910
Congress Street is just ahead where the streetcar is in this scene. None of these buildings exist today. The streetcar is electric, so this scene was captured after 1906, but before the streets were paved in 1912 or soon thereafter.
El Paso & Southwestern Railroad Depot Built In 1913.
Located at 419 W. Congress Street, it housed a successful restaurant for many years. Then it was vacant for a long time. Parkwise uses the parking lot for monthly parking. We don't know what will become of the building.
Marist College ca. 1915
The Marist College was operated by the Society of Mary (Marists), a Roman Catholic congregation for missionary & educational purposes. It is situated directly behind St. Agustin Cathedral on Stone just south of Congress St. Time has not been kind to the 3-story adobe building. Efforts are underway to save it, but ...
Congress St. looking west from Scott (left) ca. 1910; (right) ca.1930's.
Santa Rita Hotel Built In 1904
The once magnificent Santa Rita Hotel, located at the corner of Scott & Broadway, was torn down in 1973. In 2013, the Tucson Electric Power office was build on the site. In 1866, this was the site of Camp Lowell, an Army outpost to protect the little village of Tucson from renegade Apaches. Apparently, local Tucsonans got tired of the rowdy soldiers in their midst and asked the Army to move away from town. In 1873, the Army relocated 7 miles Northeast and build Fort Lowell on the Rillito River. Today the Arizona Historical Society has a small, but fine museum in the former officers' quarters at 2900 N. Craycroft Road. Click on this link to view our short video about the Fort Lowell Museum.
Valley National Bank Building
Two smaller bank building preceded this one, each too small to handle Tucson's rapid growth. This became the Valley National Bank Building in 1935. This perspective could have only been taken from the roof of the Fox Theater. Today, along with many other offices, it houses Chase Bank. And yes, this present-day image was taken from the roof of the Fox Theater. Let's just say that climbing to the roof is not recommended for those who suffer from acrophobia.
Stone Avenue Looking South (left) ca. 1930's. (right) ca. 1950's.
(top left) View of Stone Avenue from a half block north of Pennington. On the immediate left is the new Pioneer International Hotel built in 1929 for Albert Steinfeld, who was also president of the Consolidated National Bank (later Valley National Bank) in the "skyscraper" two blocks ahead at Congress and Stone. (top right) Bustling Downtown in the 1950's. In the upper right is a peak at the Steinfeld's Department Store sign where the 16-story B of A office building stands today. The hotel did not survive the fire of 1970. The "remodeled" building is just office space now. Today, across the street on the immediate right is the Joel D. Valdez Main Pima County Library which was the site of Jácome's Department Store from 1901 to 1980. In the next block further down on the right is the 16-story Bank of America building on the site that was Steinfeld's Department Store. Across Pennington Street from the Pioneer on the left, the ornate two-story building was the site of Montgomery Ward's downtown store and later a Walgreens with a popular lunch counter. Currently it's occupied by U of A.
Temple of Music and Art ca. 1927
Downtown Overview ca. 1950's
Looking north along Stone Avenue past the Valley National Bank building ca.1950's. The building in the left foreground is the office of the Tucson Citizen, Tucson's evening newspaper. Like all evening newspapers in the U.S., it died. In 2009, the Citizen ceased publication of its "dead tree" edition and became an online host for blogs, such as our Southern Arizona Guide. The blog site died in January 2014.
The present-day photo was taken from the highest level of the La Placita parking structure. The view of the Santa Catalina Mountains in the distance is now obscured.
Willard Hotel & Methodist Church
Methodist Church (far left) & the Willard Hotel ca. 1902. Upon its opening, the Arizona Daily Citizen described the hotel "as a marvel: it is simply ahead of anything in the Southwest." During WWII, what was the Willard Hotel was converted into apartments. Then, in 1944, the building became the Pueblo Hotel. It had 32 rooms, 19 with kitchenettes and 2nd story balconies. In 1955, a swimming pool and a row of palm trees were added. It is most famous for its "Diving Lady" sign that was restored and re-lit to great fanfare in 2012. The building is now law offices and the Methodist Church is gone.
Downtown from "A" Mountain
(left) This image, taken from "A" Mountain, was captured in the 1930's. The two tallest buildings in the center are the Pioneer Hotel (left) and Valley National Bank building. Just above & beyond Valley National you can see the reddish brick buildings of the University. In the foreground, the Santa Cruz River is flowing. The I-10 freeway portion that runs through Downtown Tucson was build in stages in the 1950's & 60's. The foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains, where most of Tucson's most expensive properties are today, are still undeveloped in this picture.