Looking northeast toward the barely visible Santa Catalina Mountains is Tucson in the early 1880s. The photograph, probably taken from the lower steps of Sentinel Peak, shows an evolving Tucson.
In the foreground are four houses at various stages of construction. One is a mere shell with large adobe bricks stacked neatly beside an unfinished exterior wall, and another has been outfitted with heavy beams to support a roof.
Across from the windmill at the right of the photo and at left center are dwellings with pitched roofs covered with wood shingles. This mode of construction was unheard of in Tucson before the coming of the railroad. The nearest source of wood was in the Catalinas, but harvesting and transporting it from the mountains by wagon was a cost-prohibitive proposition. Therefore, roofs were built from sagebrush interlaced on saguaro ribs and covered with mud, often with a canvas ceiling to trap dust and insects.
When the Southern Pacific railroad finally steamed into town in March 1880, it brought Tucson great quantities of affordable lumber from East and West Coast mills. And with that, Tucson was able to quickly refashion itself from what Anglos considered a drab Spanish-Mexican village to one with American trim.
An influx of remodeling began. Pitched roofs replaced flat roofs. Shutters were abandoned for blown glass in double hung frames. Spacious verandas gave new personality to traditionally stark exteriors, and gingerbread molding adorned otherwise ordinary nooks and crannies.
Although for centuries, adobe had proven its worth as a material unmatched in durability and adaptability to desert extremes, much of Tucson’s Anglo population abhorred its use in constructing buildings.
Louis C. Hughes, publisher of the Arizona Daily Star and future territorial governor, adamantly declared against adobe. He preferred wood and extolled its virtues in an April 1880 editorial: “How a frame house can be built in every way fitted for a warm climate is fully shown in the new railroad depot building. It can be copied to advantage by those who desire to try frame instead of adobe for their future residence. We hope to see many constructed in Tucson before long.” Some years later, that railroad depot burned to the ground.
Midway through the 1880s, red-fired brick began to replace adobe and wood in new downtown commercial buildings and in a few private residences. By the turn of the century, it had become the building material of choice, and to the delight of Tucson’s Anglo residents, the city began to take on the appearance of a typical American town.
In the end, the issue of which building materials worked best in a desert climate never was given serious consideration. Instead, the decision to stop using adobe was a desire on the part of Tucson’s new Anglo majority to recast the foreign imagery of a Spanish-Mexican town to replicate typical American towns like Danbury, Dayton or Duluth.
Fortunately, the efforts to Americanize Tucson were not altogether successful because a dollop of Tucson’s traditional flavor still remains throughout the city.
— W. Lane Rogers. Photo courtesy author.