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Huckelberry: Preserving iconic courthouse through adaptive reuse

For mostly all of its nearly 90-year history, the Pima County Historic Courthouse was exactly that, a courthouse. But over the years, the county's population outgrew the capacity of the tile-domed marvel of Spanish colonial revival architecture. Heavy use took its toll on the building where John Dillinger had his day in court before extradition to Indiana. It became quite difficult for the county to maintain the aging structure while running a bustling Justice Court plus a few other busy county departments.

So, in 2004 we asked voters to approve a new courthouse, which opened in 2015 and included offices for the Assessor, Treasurer and Recorder.

That left us an empty icon. We couldn't leave it the way it was, with a leaky roof, deteriorating dome and drafty windows. In 2016, we gutted and repaired the interior (though preserving the history, including restoring the Dillinger courtroom to is former size) and began restoring the exterior to as close to its original 1929 grand-opening appearance as possible. I think Roy Place, the notable architect who designed and built it, would be proud of the job we've done.

Yet, an empty historic building with a restored exterior looks nice but doesn't do much for the community, the building or the taxpayer. We needed to find a new use for the building, which in the historic preservation trade is called adaptive reuse.

Last month, the Board of Supervisors approved leases by the University of Arizona Mineral Museum and Visit Tucson. These new tenants will give this grand old building a new life as a county tourist attraction and resource center. The county's Office of Sustainability and Conservation and the Attractions and Tourism Department will move in, too. Sustainability, along with Facilities Management, has overseen the historic restoration of the courthouse and having its new offices be in one of the most historic buildings in the county seemed appropriate. Attractions and Tourism works closely with Visit Tucson to promote county tourism and will also oversee a regional visitors center on the first floor.

There is more to this plan than giving an old building new life, though. It's part of the county's effort to strengthen our local economy. Tourism and conventions are some of the most important components of our economy. The spectacular UA Mineral Museum, currently squeezed into the basement of a university building, will bloom in its new, expansive location. The museum's connection to Tucson Gem and Mineral Show has museum and gem show leaders buzzing with ideas and possibilities for partnerships in the coming Februaries.

The Regional Visitors Center and its museum-like design concept, combined with the Mineral Museum, will bring thousands of people downtown every year, bolstering an already burgeoning downtown dining and entertainment scene.

The Pima County Historic Courthouse is just that, part of our history. I'm proud of all of the people who have come together to preserve and give it a new life for another 90 years.

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Chuck Huckelberry is the administrator of Pima County.

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