Recession imperils renovation of downtown’s adobe gem
After 94 years, the hulking downtown building – scarred by protective blue tarps and propped up with steel beams – seems ready to give up and melt back into the earth from which it came.
But the building is stronger than it looks. And with some repairs, it could easily last another century or so.
That, however, seems unlikely. A rescue mission will take money – in an economy where money for things like saving old buildings is hard to come by.
Nonetheless, Ken Scoville is not giving up.
The building is the former Marist College, a massive adobe structure owned by the Catholic Diocese of Tucson. It is west of St. Augustine Cathedral and across the street from the Tucson Convention Center.
Although it is in the heart of downtown, the building has been overlooked as redevelopment gets under way all around.
The Marist College building is worth saving. Including a full basement, it has three stories with about 10,000 square feet inside. The two stories above ground were built with adobe. The top portion, above the second-floor ceiling line, is brick.
Scoville, a local historian, said the building is the largest adobe structure remaining in southern Arizona – and possibly in the state.
It was unusual to build multistory buildings from the mud bricks because of the crushing weight two stories would place on the bottom bricks. The concrete basement was an innovative foundation that helped support the weight of the adobes, which are stacked to make walls 18 inches thick.
In addition to the size of the building, the timing of its construction was unusual. Adobe was the building material of choice in the early years of Tucson because there wasn’t much else available.
In 1880, the railroad arrived, and with it came bricks, wood and more “sophisticated” buildings materials.
“This was built at the end of the adobe era in Tucson,” Scoville said.
According to Scoville’s research, four Marist brothers came to Tucson in 1914 to teach English. The building went up a year later with boarding and day students from elementary school through the sophomore year of high school accepted for classes.
The building was used as a school until 1968. After that, it was used as offices for the diocese until 2002 when it was vacated because of stability concerns.
Eric Means of Means Construction, a local preservation contractor, said the damage could easily have been prevented. Drains became clogged with fronds from nearby palm trees, causing water to pond on the roof. It eventually seeped down through the adobes, causing them to melt. A nonpermeable coating applied to the outside trapped moisture, accelerating the damage.
The corners of the building were the first to go. The northwest corner is held up by steel beams and covered with a blue tarp, but pigeons fly in and out. In recent months, tarps have been put on the other corners to minimize damage.
Means said the temporary measures have saved the Marist College, which has shifted less than 1/32 of an inch in the past several years.
“This building is unique and valuable,” Means said. He estimates it would cost $1 million to remove the harmful coating, replace the damaged adobes and bring the building back to structural stability. “It’s cheaper to restore it than put up a new building” of comparable size, he said.
John Shaheen, property and insurance manager for the diocese, said the church doesn’t have the money to restore the building.
If someone wants to restore it and has a proposal, the diocese is interested in listening, he said. It would have to be a use compatible with the cathedral, so don’t expect to see a bar in the building.
If you haven’t looked at the Marist College building, it’s worth a trip downtown. Walk around it and look at it – rounded window openings, the statutes on the north side, the detail around the doors. Despite the peeling exterior, it is a beautiful structure.
“It’s just melting away,” Scoville lamented. “But I still want to believe we can save it.”
Mark Kimble appears at 6:30 p.m. Fridays on the Roundtable segment of “Arizona Illustrated” on KUAT-TV, Channel 6. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4662.
Ken Scoville (above) is trying to raise money and interest for preserving the Marist College building. Contact him at email@example.com.