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What the Devil won't tell you

Sunshine Mile born to die for progress

Nothing particularly Tucsonan about Mid-Century Modern oasis

Please, don't save the Sunshine Mile.

Maybe one or two buildings if you can, I guess. Seriously though, Tucson shouldn't go out of its way to save from real-time progress and expansion a form of architecture devoted to the idea of real-time progress and expansion. Besides that, Mid-Century Modern is bloody ugly.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has tagged Broadway between Euclid and Country Club roads as an endangered place alongside San Francisco's Embarcadero, the Louisiana steamship the Delta Queen and the James River in Virginia. Also on the list are the South's first desegregated golf course, the oldest building on the first campus to confer degrees for African Americans and See's Candy. One of these things doesn't belong.

Voter-approved expansion of Broadway is what threatens the Mid-Century Modern architecture that lines it. Mid-Century Modern isn't art. It's what art rebelled against.

I saw this day coming but I thought I was kidding.

In the 1990s, I covered historic preservation as downtown Flagstaff tried to resuscitate its former glory as a hamlet born of the emergent West. Not the Old West, per se. All those buildings burned to the ground in the late 1880s. The idea was to preserve and revitalize what had been hidden under various forms of siding to celebrate the aesthetic brick and stone permanence of Manifest Destiny's beachhead in the American West.

On the northeastern edge of downtown sat a monster. A bank, of course, rose in four stories of metallic olive indignation of Western history and heritage. Its architect pointed the way to a future of sterile, masculine dominance as a least common denominator. The bank was one part featureless glass and one part green metal paneling. It stuck out like a vinyl pocket protector in a Tommy Hilfiger ad.

I can see what the architect was thinking when he (and you know it was a he) designed back in the day. He saw it as the first announcement that a new day of mini skyscrapers had arrived at the base of the San Francisco Peaks. Progress was coming and it had no sense of style. It declared that everything is possible in America and the days of aesthetic style were over. Corporate conformity had finally joined with slide rule sensibilities to rid ourselves of all that subversive self-expression.

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I used to joke in the newsroom that someday someone would want to save that succubus of style and form. Ha. Ha. Ha. Here were are in Tucson and forces are aligning to do just that, confusing global infections of kitsch with local history.

Sunshine Mile

The stretch of Broadway got something of a national boost when New York Times fashion critic Guy Trebay — I swear to God, he's a fashion critic named Guy Trebay — came to Tucson and ruminated on his visit like a typical Big Apple snoot covering fashion for a living.

The copy included all the familiar crutches writers from "real cities" lean on to describe Tucson and Tucsonans. He twice called us "drowsy," deployed "dusty" and referred to all the drifters travel writers insist mosey in and out of town. Trebay purposefully eschewed 4th Avenue, Downtown and South Side Mexican food because Tucsonans can't be trusted to do Tucson better than the right kind of New Yorker.

Tucson Historical Preservation Foundation president Demion Clinco pointed him in the direction of the Sunshine Mile, which is actually two miles, and just enough Mid-Century Modern to clog traffic for years. It became a major focus of an otherwise unfocused piece that ruminated about our cultural worthiness without conclusion.

He seemed amused by this particular stretch of Broadway but even he said it wasn't any particular cluster of note. Other places, like Phoenix — go figure — have greater testimonies to the great 1950s soul suck.

I call Trebay's article and National Registry's listing big scores for Clinco, who is suiting up for another fight against local government to save part of Tucson. Most recently, Clinco went to war with then City Zoning Inspector Linus Kafka to protect Valley of the Moon. The spat led to Kafka's resignation.

That's fine; godspeed on your journey, Demion. There may be a building or two to protect but the widening project is paramount.

Elements of style

I'm not going to pretend to be a student of architecture. I admit to being old school. I like European cathedrals and haciendas. I like Deco and German Fachwerk (decorative criss-crossing wooden beams) but not in the desert.

Frank Gehry's warped facades make me seasick on land.

Architecture is as much about the sensibilities of the time as it is about buttresses or columns. I got that much in art history class. And Mid-Century Modern rises straight up out of Ward Cleaver's 1950s.

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Plenty of great stuff happened after World War II in America. The rise of the middle class was the greatest economic story in human history. Home ownership spiked as husband and wives were kings and queens of their castles. There was the '57 Chevy and appliances built to last. The Mercury Program led to Gemini and the Apollo moonshot. Progress gave us central cooling and the longer-lasting light bulb.

Progress was on a double-time march and the building styles of the era embraced it way too much in a testament to homogeneity.

Mid-Century Modern hardly requires a sophisticated understanding of its roots. It's about as subtle as a ballpeen hammer. When the economy is predicated on mass-producing stock for a single consumer class, conformity is the goal because customization gets in the way of progress. This kind of modernist architecture reflected production as a statement Mr. Bossman would not find troubling. It was an ode to the Jet Age by people who didn't comprehend the Space Age.

Right angles with George Jetson swooshy flourish does not an artistic statement make. It was Frankie Valli and Elvis movies. It was the poodle skirt and the flattop. It was the Swanson dinner and TV trays. Kerouac and Warhol made their bones rejecting what was stamped on the landscape with cookie-cutter conformity.

The design trend united America under a single banner of architectural colonization. Every corner of America saluted the modern with perpendicular obedience. Waivers could be granted for canted angles but they had better have been symmetrical or the architect could just move to Leningrad where they belonged.

These designs history were no more specific to Tucson history than the convenience store, and I hope no one lays down in front of the bulldozer set to level the last Circle K.

And that's just it. Nothing about Mid-Century Modern is particularly Tucson. There is only one Embarcadero. The  Delta Queen is one of many surviving steamships but it is to a period of New Orleans history.

With the Sunshine Mile, Tucson isn't arguing about historic barrios. It's not the work of an actual Tucson architect like Josias Joesler, whose style brought the environment into the design to make his work distinctly Tucson. Save that and I'm all for it. That's not what we're talking about.

Ever-widening

In 2006, voters approved the Regional Transportation Plan, which included multiple widening projects because god forbid Tucson contemplate a freeway system. Right of way costs probably make such dreams fantasies but Tucson preservationists have long fought any effort to californicate Tucson with roads absent traffic lights.

Surface streets are what we got and are all we'll have. So any road that hasn't been widened will be and those that were, will be again.

I'm not without sympathy for the business owners but arterials giveth and arterials taketh away. They provide lots of traffic and exposure but are exposed to the dangers of traffic. One of those dangers is that the community is going to try to improve the traffic flow by condemning businesses along that road.

I say this as a guy whose life is about to be upended by widening of Grant Road.

Infrastructure upgrades are progress. To bury architecture devoted to progress with more progress is like a burning a Viking corpse on a raft of logs set upon the water. It's a good death and a proper funeral for a chic devoted to the new that would bury the old.

Blake Morlock covered Arizona government and politics for 15 years, including 11 in the Tucson Citizen. He also worked on Democratic Party campaigns in the field of political communications. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.
Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly reported the group that listed Sunhine Mile among America’s most endangered historic places


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2 comments on this story

2
38 comments
Oct 17, 2016, 2:07 pm
-2 +0

As someone who has traveled to places with actual history, the odd house on the block is likely older than this country, the United States’ notion of “historic” gives me hives.

Could we at least agree that unless a thing in involved in some great, signal event, we won’t consider something historic if any living person is old enough to remember a time without it?

Of course, if the strip malls on Broadway were a thousand years old they should still go.  We have pictures, what else is there to those things that would be lost?

1
12 comments
Oct 12, 2016, 3:25 pm
-1 +1

I couldn’t agree more on the take on mid-century modern being a case for the bulldozer. I could not fathom that strip-mall section of Broadway even being mentioned in one breath with the Delta Queen and the St. James River.

The author makes a great argument for what Tucson stands for architecturally, and what it doesn’t, but the article could be so much more effective without the male-bashing, which is completely unwarranted and uncalled for when talking about architecture. Corporate conformity is completely gender-neutral.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Part of Broadway's 'Sunshine Mile' includes the Hirsh's Shoes building, center.