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Removal of Pima courthouse fountain drew ire of supervisors, public

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The way we were

Removal of Pima courthouse fountain drew ire of supervisors, public

  • Ken Lund/Flickr

With the ongoing renovation work on the storied 1929 Pima County Courthouse, a few discoveries have caused some minor controversy, most notably that the building was not originally the familiar pink that generations of Tucsonans have grown up with.

However, a dispute during a previous renovation nearly 30 years ago inspired far more serious debate. It involved the courthouse fountain and some of the most influential figures in county politics at the time.

When the 1929 courthouse was constructed, it included a fountain, but for reasons that remain unclear, it was not to be at the center of the courtyard, but at the south end. The fountain stopped operating by the early 1950s after the plumbing was damaged when the basement beneath was filled in. In March 1956, the fountain was demolished, to be replaced with a new 12 foot by 12 foot octagonal fountain at the center of the courtyard. The patio was to be further improved with the construction of walkways. The project was completed by June of that year.

By the late 1980s, the 1929 courthouse continued to headquarter the Assessor, Recorder, Treasurer and many of the Justice Courts, but most county functions, including the Board of Supervisors, were now housed elsewhere.

Nevertheless, the building and its dome remained a recognizable symbol of local government, and thus a focus in fights over the county's political identity.

Local activist Brian Flagg would stage an annual Christmas celebration on the patio called "No Room at the Inn" where Tucson's homeless could enjoy music and turkey for the holiday.

In 1987, the event became an outright protest, extending to a 13-day encampment to call attention to the plight of the homeless. Eventually, county officials agreed to a resolution in support of the expansion of shelters and state legislation creating a housing fund. The protesters declared victory and moved on.

In December of 1991, dissatisfied by the county's progress on the issues, Flagg and his colleagues among the Catholic Worker community organized a larger action.

As many as a thousand homeless formed an encampment called "Bushville," after the then-president, in Downtown Tucson. On the patio, a greatly expanded Christmas observation drew nearly 300 people. Again, the protesters set up camp in the courtyard and demanded substantive action on homelessness.

This particularly rankled Supervisor Ed Moore, who, to put it charitably, was not particularly sympathetic to their cause.

Gruff, outspoken and usually controversial, Moore had recently forced the election of a new chairman and switched from Democrat to Republican, changing the partisan balance on the Board. Moore demanded that Tucson police take action to forcibly remove the protesters.

However, TPD needed an official request and Chairman Reg Morrison, a fellow Republican, was not inclined to take action and even met with the protesters. For their part, TPD said that the protest was relatively orderly, and did not generate the volume of complaints that the smaller 1987 one had.

Eventually, the situation did test the patience of county employees, however, and by early January some began to complain about the disruption to their daily work. Fortunately, officials were negotiating a solution in the form of a package that included rental assistance, investigation of problematic evictions, and an expansion of Justice Court hours to allow for more time to fairly consider eviction cases. The package passed unanimously as even Moore supported it. The protesters voluntarily broke camp on January 9.

Moore, however, seemed determined to not let this sort of thing happen again. He asked the county facilities management department to tear out the now dilapidated 1956 fountain as a part of an ongoing courthouse renovation that also included replacing the lawn with desert landscaping.

Moore denied that he was motivated by a desire to discourage future protests, though he tellingly admitted that "if it helps for that end, great."

This came as a surprise to the two remaining Democrats on the board. In April, Supervisors Dan Eckstrom and Raúl Grijalva were shocked to discover that the fountain had been destroyed, as this part of the plan had not been brought to the supervisors.

As Tucson natives, both had fond memories of the fountain from childhood and called its removal "stupid" and "a mistake."

County workers, however, quickly pointed out that the fountain was not part of the original structure, and therefore not "historic." Despite this, there were many in the community who remained angry about the fountain's removal. The issue remained alive even as it was quickly overshadowed by other controversies, with Eckstrom expressing surprise at the number of calls he had gotten about it.

Later that year, archaeologists located the foundations for the original fountain while digging for remnants of the Presidio wall.

That December, it was announced that the county would recreate the 1929 fountain, with its original design, at the old location. Supervisors Eckstrom and Grijalva were pleased, and the plan seemed to satisfy those who objected to the original demolition. The project was completed in 1993.

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