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Midtown townhouses at Orchard River added to National Historic Register

A Midtown Tucson townhouse complex has been added to the National Register of Historic Places, with the hopes of preserving its desert-modernist style. 50-year-old Orchard River Garden Park is tucked between the Fort Lowell museum and the Chuck Huckelberry Loop as it runs along the Pantano Wash.

It was built between 1972 and 1974 on a plot of land that had been a family-owned pecan orchard until the 1960s and that had hosted a Hohokam community more than 500 years before that.

More than 100 pecan trees are still growing around the 136 townhouses in Orchard River. Seven-year resident Linus Kafka said the complex was designed to give space for those trees, which grow over its walkways, patios and courtyards. Kafka, who teaches at the UA College of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture and worked as lawyer in land use cases, describes Orchard River as “sympathetic to its environment” and made to “minimize its impact.”

“It’s not historicist architecture. It’s modern architecture, but it's a really sensitive form of modern architecture that knows its space and environment,” Kafka said. “Some modern architecture ignores the environment and celebrates itself…(Orchard River) really echoes its history and surroundings without being slavish or historicist.”

Along with the pecan trees, the landscape in Orchard River includes grass lawns and broadleaf shrubs like juniper, privet and oleander. Most of its verdure, which stands apart from lighter desert vegetation, was planted when the complex was built though some of it has been removed to save water. There’s no pattern in the plantings, and the size and layout of the rectangular courtyards vary based on the plants around them. 

The National Register of Historic Places is a National Park Service program that tries to bring public and private support for protecting historic and archeological resources across the country. With over 96,000 listings, nearly every county in the U.S. has a park, building or district on the register, and Pima County has dozens including Barrio Libre, El Presidio Historic District, the Arizona Hotel, the downtown Arizona Daily Star Building, El Conquistador Water Tower and others. Orchard River is the first location in Pima County added to the register since 2009, however.

Kafka spearheaded Orchard River’s application for the historic register in 2019 with the intention of generating acknowledgement for its distinct style and recognition for the diverse architecture throughout Tucson.

“What the historic nomination does is generate interest and acknowledgement… people who didn’t know about it will start to see it and that’s a good thing because it’s recognizing that we have really distinctive, wonderful architecture here in Tucson,” he said. “Historic districts really preserve value in real estate, honor history and create community, and those are good things.”

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The recognition isn’t expected to make a difference on housing prices in or around Orchard River, Kafka said, as it has little effect compared to market forces like construction costs or the number of buyers. Arizona does, however, provide a tax benefit for homeowners on historic properties that can cut property taxes by as much as 45 percent. It also makes the property eligible for federal preservation tax credits.

Most of the physical preservation of the buildings and landscape comes from the Orchard River’s own regulations and bylaws, but the recognition helps with long-term preservation, Kafka said.

The location of Orchard River was once outside of city limits of Tucson, and it wasn’t annexed until 1992, two decades after it was built. It was once surrounded by ranches, and Kafka said that when was in Tucson as a kid in the late '70s, he considered anything east of Craycroft Road as a bit far. Tucson has since grown around it so that it’s situated relatively close to the center of town and just on the border of the city’s East Side.

Modernism in architecture refers to a movement during the 20th century towards the use of structural innovations, the efficient use of space and materials and an emphasis on the beauty of rational forms over decoration or ornamentation. Kafka compared the design of Orchard River to an architectural style called the Prairie School, which was influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright’s use of flat lines when designing homes in the Midwest to reflect the shape of treeless prairies.

The homes in Orchard River are made out of adobe slump blocks to imitate the nearby Fort Lowell, which was built in 1873. The homes are “nicely sized and intimately scaled,” Kafka said. Each home has between 1,200 - 1,600 square feet with tall, cathedral ceilings inside, differentiating interior designs and windows that are set to not be looking directly at or into a neighbor’s home.

It was originally built for middle-income folks, Kafka said, but “the housing market has skyrocketed every year” since he bought his place there in 2014, he said. Now it’s less accessible to new and younger homebuyers and more affordable to older buyers who might already own property that they can sell to move in.

This is a shame, Kafka said, because he feels like more people are starting to seek out the kind of small, quaint housing and friendly communities that they could find at Orchard River.

“New housing is too big, too isolated from neighbors and boring in design,” he said. “Orchard River is nicely sized and intimately scaled, it has a community and it has an interesting design.”

Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member.

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Click image to enlarge

courtesy of Orchard River Garden Park

A walkway in Orchard River Garden Park under its pecan trees.