By Demion Clinco
The PLF blog will feature a series of posts exploring modernist sites and efforts to preserve them. Join our top-notch blog contributors as they take you from Tucson’s Sunshine Mile to Googie coffeeshops. We think you will enjoy the journey.
Tucson’s Broadway Boulevard was born modern. The architectural style of the buildings along Broadway expressed the new American optimism and economic boom following World War II that was changing the nation. Like many cities, Tucson was growing rapidly; in 1940, Tucson’s population was 35,000 and by 1960, it had soared to 212,000.
Broadway Boulevard reflected the American Dream. As the boulevard became an important suburban corridor, modern structures were built along its edge to support new neighborhoods with curved streets and rambling ranch houses. A high-end shopping district emerged with new stores to meet the demands of 1950s and ‘60s consumers. Furniture, lighting, photographic equipment, shoes, clothes, and cars were just some of the offerings on the street.
Glass storefronts, geometric designs, new materials, and evocative signage created a vision of Tucson as a modern metropolis. In 1953 the East Broadway Merchants sponsored a contest to name this district. More than 5,000 ideas were submitted; the winning entry was "The Sunshine Mile."
Unfortunately, this vibrant shopping district began to fade by the mid 1970s. In the 1980s, the City of Tucson proposed a transportation improvement plan which called for the demolition of buildings on the north side of the street to make room for eight lanes of traffic. The unfunded plan, with no definitive construction date, ignored the architectural and historic context of the boulevard and caused potential entrepreneurs and investors to back off. Twenty years of waiting for the street-widening resulted in disinvestment and the slow deterioration of this once elegant midcentury corridor. But, in an irony of urban planning, an unintended consequence of the stalled plan was the preservation of many historic buildings lining the boulevard.
For more than 30 years, Tucsonans have driven past the once glamorous, but aging storefronts and sleekly designed buildings, without much thought. But that began to change in the early 2000s when revived plans to widen Broadway placed the fate of many midcentury modern buildings in the balance.
Today, the future of this historic corridor and its midcentury modern buildings have put the 30-year-old street widening plan in the center of a public fight, based on a recent change in how the community values its midcentury modern architectural resources and its urban core. (See: See: A Guide to Tucson's Modernist Sunshine Mile)
In 2006 the widening plan was funded as part of a $2.1 billion, 20-year Regional Transportation Authority Plan. In 2011 as the municipal public process to oversee and finalize the widening began to take shape, the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation (THPF) responded with a multifaceted approach to reframe the conversation about these resources and their long-term, multigenerational value. Looking at successful programs and models around the country, THPF chose to create "Tucson Modernism Week" —a multi-day series of events, lectures, parties, popup shops, and films that highlight the corridor and its architecture, while increasing the awareness of midcentury design. The majority of events are free and open to the public. Held in early October, these programs take place in empty glass storefronts, modernist churches, synagogues, school auditoriums, parking lots, and on the steps of the nearby midcentury modern Chase Bank building. More than 2,000 people took part in 2012. In 2013, that number nearly doubled to more than 3,500 people.
Making Modernism Accessible, Relevant and Sexy
Messaging is key and framing the message with photography and graphics is paramount. Two photographers took photos in the late afternoon to capture the buildings in the glowing "magic hour" light providing a glimpse of what was possible if the corridor re-emerged. The images were key in developing marketing material that reframed discussions on the value of the corridor. The photos were essential to press releases, as well as collateral and ongoing social media content. Clean consistent graphic design was developed for posters, cards, PR, and marketing. These graphics appeared on polemounted street banners, which were produced by a printer and sign maker within the district at cost, to create the district’s sense of place.
Events are not just about architecture, but explore industrial design, art, and fashion to create a compelling montage celebrating America’s postwar heritage. An evening reception at a local bank featured a vintage fashion show and a DJ spinning classic records. A popup shop featuring dealers of vintage modern furniture was developed to demonstrate economic possibilities in empty stores.
Event participants are able to experience buildings and spaces that have been overlooked. Programming focuses on local modernism within a national context. Over and over the underlying message is “we are lucky to have such a cache of classic midcentury buildings, and we must protect them.”
In 2012 the statewide Arizona Preservation Foundation accepted THPF's nomination to place Broadway Boulevard on its most endangered list, concurrent with Modernism Week, thus creating another opportunity for news.The story was featured on the front page of the The Arizona Daily Star, Tucson's only major daily newspaper.
Educate Property Owners and Businesses
Central to the approach is to educate the stakeholders. During Modernism Week, THPF offers a workshop for property and business owners. The first year, the focus was on understanding the importance modernism, the characteristics of the modernist storefront, the economic value of protecting and enhancing this sense of place, and the significance in using it as a brand. The second year THPF focused on window display. One result was the removal, from multiple buildings, of anachronistic additions such as 1980s-era awnings.
Shortly after the first Modernism Week, merchants along the corridor revived the 1950s moniker the “Sunshine Mile,” creating a new brand identity, and continued to host events throughout the year.
A key to success is developing meaningful partnerships. Pima Community College saw the value in educating the community and signed on as a major first-year sponsor for Modernism Week. Restaurants and businesses throughout the community supported events and programs with in-kind donations and contributions.
Atomic Tucson, a local real estate company specializing in midcentury design, was instrumental in organizing the annual Modern Home tour. In the second year, the tour was a partnership between THPF and the local AIA chapter. Other partnership examples include a local midcentury-era theater partnering with THPF to present a small film series with a focus on designers whose work was influential in the region. A paint company donated supplies and labor to paint the theater lobby before the series.
These partners help to communicate the value of modernism in our community, lend credibility to our efforts and create a strong foundation of support in the future.
Celebrate Design & Designers
Modernist architecture is often difficult to sell, but stories of the architects and designers who left their legacy during the era are compelling. In some cases, these architects are still alive, and their families still live in the community. Highlighting their work and their influence on the development of the city is a powerful tool to underscore the importance of preserving these resources. Focusing on these architects and designers have been critical in fostering a sense of community pride and excitement. These designers had a positive impact on our built environment, and their legacy should be celebrated.
Build a Movement
Building a constituency is the most important factor, but staying connected is essential.
THPF created an online presence specifically for the modernism work to sell tickets and collect contact information. When Herman Miller and its Tucson dealer, Goodman’s Interior Structures, generously donated a piece of classic Eames-designed furniture, we sponsored a raffle that allowed us to collect contact information in the process. When issues arise, we now have thousands of contacts interested and ready to take action.
The future of Tucson’s Broadway Boulevard is by no means assured or complete, but the excitement and power of midcentury modernism has been unleashed. Neighborhoods adjacent to the corridor are financially supporting the THPF preparation of a Broadway national register nomination. Businesses are rehabilitating storefronts and new paint and signage is appearing for the first time in decades. The City of Tucson Bond Committee is currently evaluating the funding for a Facade Rehabilitation Program in the district. In 2014, THPF will present the Third Annual Modernism Week during the first weekend in October and many Tucsonans are already happily anticipating and volunteering their support for the event. Awareness of the "Sunshine Mile" district made Tucson proud of its modern heritage, but it would not have been possible without a planned strategy of community engagement.
Demion Clinco is an advisor to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. He is the president of the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation and a member of the Arizona State House of Representatives.
Pride and Prejudice: Preserving Midcentury Modern Heritage
Five Strategies to Preserve a Midcentury Modern Mecca
No Longer Invisible: Googie Coffeeshops
What Makes Modernism So Different?
Saving the Modern Century: Future Visions for Historic Preservation