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The Sad Fate of San Agustin

The second San Agustin Cathedral in the late 1890s.

When Father Donato Rogieri came to what was then New Mexico Territory in 1862, to shepherd the souls of largely Mexican-Catholic Tucson, he found a church in ruin on the west side of the Santa Cruz River at what today is called the Convento Site. Built in 1772, when present-day Arizona was known as Pimera Alta, the northern most outpost of New Spain, the church appeared in early Spanish documents as San Agustin del Tucson. Unfortunately, if an artist rendered a likeness of the structure, it has not survived.
Addressing the obvious need for a house of worship, Father Rogieri set out immediately to construct a second San Agustin. Adobe bricks were made at a clearing near the Santa Cruz River. Following daily mass, rendered in a hastily constructed outdoor bower, each parishioner carried a heavy brick to the construction site. The building rose slowly on the Plaza de la Mesilla, just west of present-day Church Street, between Broadway and Congress, facing west toward Sentinel Peak. A chronic lack of funds and other delays postponed completion of the church until 1870.
In that year, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet arrived in Tucson. Consequently, an addition to the church — it is seen in the photo above — was constructed and Tucson’s first school was established. Built in the “fashion of the country,” as noted by a sister, it was a thick-walled adobe building with earthen floors and a roof of sagebrush and cactus interlaced on pine rafters and covered with mud. Crude as it was, it served the town’s educational needs until a new building — a vast improvement constructed of solid stone — was built in 1885.
By 1896, the parish had outgrown the second San Agustin, and ecclesiastical leaders determined that this burgeoning cosmopolitan city ought to have a bonafide cathedral. Land was acquired a few blocks south at Stone Avenue and Ochoa Street and construction began on a red brick edifice. It was designed in the then popular Romanesque style, with severe flat-topped towers, each containing six windows of various sizes, and a forbidding entryway more suitable to a medieval castle than a cathedral.
The old church at Plaza de la Mesilla was sold to the highest bidder. It was not purchased by another religious denomination, but by commercial interests who were committed to the odd notion that it would make a spiffy hotel. Consequently, the interior was gutted and remodeled, and the venerable old building commenced a new life as Hotel San Augustine (note the variant spelling).
The new Cathedral of San Augustin (note yet another variant spelling) was slightly more than 30 years old when parishioners grew weary of its Romanesque façade. The diocese hired Henry O. Jaastad — architect of the original El Conquistador Hotel and perennial mayor of Tucson — to redesign, remodel and enlarge the church. The result was the finely chiseled and expertly crafted Spanish mission facade that graces the structure today.
Meantime, Hotel San Augustine fell on hard times. As age set in and deterioration began, maintenance and repairs were spotty. The building fell into disrepair and the hotel became a disreputable flophouse — and, some claim, a bordello.
The property’s final incarnation was no less questionable. Its exterior was painted a ghastly yellow, the interior was gutted yet again, and the space where parishioners once knelt in prayer was converted for use as a mechanics garage. San Agustin had become an auto repair shop and a Texaco filling station.
Talk of demolition commenced during the early days of the Great Depression. Then, against the protests of a small group of historically minded Tucsonans, the filling station became victim of a wrecker’s ball in the mid-1930s. Forward-looking folks called it progress, and no one much cared.
Happily, Jaastad’s handsome 1929 creation has become an enduring downtown landmark.
— W. Lane Rogers. Photo courtesy of Arizona Historical Society.

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