A Tucson Historic Gem: Old Town Artisans
Historic Spanish fort that now houses art galleries.
The last time that I went back home to visit my family in Tucson, I got the opportunity to explore a historic set of buildings in the downtown area of the city. This was actually a set of buildings that I had been in several times before. However, I had never really looked at the building or learned about its history. This time was different and I hope that other Tucson residents and visitors can learn from my experience and check out this little historic gem.
The set of buildings is called Old Town Artisans. It is a restaurant surrounded by several little stores and art galleries. The majority of the work here has a traditional Southwestern theme to it. In the center of all of the stores is a courtyard. The restaurant offers outdoor dining in this courtyard. There are also live music performances and other events to see here a times. I was actually familiar with the area because the courtyard is used as one of the stages in the annual Tucson Folk Festival that has been happening every May for the past two and a half decades. I have also seen other performances in this space such as a Native American fire dance performance.
My father is a local woodworker who had a piece for furniture that he was interested in placing in a gallery in Old Town Artisans. That was why we went there the last time that I was home. It was really good timing. The courtyard was filled with vendors who were selling homemade arts and crafts. My sister got to talking to a female vendor there who makes her own Native American style pottery using clay that she digs up herself from local riverbeds. Through their conversation, we learned that the woman used to work for Old Town Artisans and had spent a great deal of time learning about the building. She offered to give us a tour, an offer that we greedily accepted.
It turns out that the shops are all housed in what used to be a large home back in the true Old West days of Tucson’s history. Each of the galleries and stores in Old Town Artisans is in one of the old rooms of the house. The rooms have many little details that reflect different time periods of growth in the history of the buildings as well as the general history of the city of Tucson.
The original building was constructed over a period of time in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. At that time it was the home of a single extended family. It housed great-grandparents, great-grand-children and everyone in between. Of course, this type of communal family living was common during that time. It was not as common in The Old West as it was in the East or Midwest though, due to the frontier nature of the area. For that reason, it’s interesting that this old home housed such a number of generations together.
Our guide walked us through the building and pointed out things that I never would have noticed on my own. Some of those details (which I would definitely recommend keeping an eye out for if you get a chance to check this place out) include:
· Areas of the roof that were built from old wine barrels, the packing crates that the family arrived there with and ribs from old saguaro cacti. If you stand inside of the galleries and look up at the ceilings you will see all of these different things that went into the construction of the space. They were really thrifty and into alternative home construction back in those days because they had to be!
· Historic pine wood construction. We learned that the pine used to construct part of the building was taken from Mt. Lemmon but it took about six weeks to go up to the mountain in a horse and buggy and bring that wood back down. These days we consider Mt. Lemmon a short drive up to see a nice scenic view of the city. How different it was back then!
· The building itself is part of a larger historic district called El Presidio San Augustin del Tucson. This was a Spanish fort that was built back in 1775. The buildings here held some of the stables for the fort. There is a room on the north side of the courtyard where you can see a piece of the original fort wall!
The woman that was giving us the tour even had some old pictures of what the building looked like over one hundred years ago. At one point it had been turned into a general store complete with a root cellar in the bottom and a canvas painting on the outside. We saw these pictures and got to stand in the store that exists there today which is, of course, quite different from the old general store. We learned that this place had been everything from a distillery to a brothel. Although our guide didn’t tell us anything about it, the Old Town Artisans website informs me that the inside of the aforementioned restaurant was an old gas station in the 1920’s that was converted.
This historic building was almost torn down not so long ago. Luckily, a group of people who were interested in preserving the history of Tucson decided to work hard together to save it. That’s how it came to be a preserved historic building that is home to artists working in the Southwestern style.
This is definitely a historic space worth checking out if you’re ever in Tucson. Also, I think that this story points to a significant fact about finding surprises in your own city because this was one of the Tucson gems that I’d been to but never actually paid attention to before. It just goes to show that there are new things to be discovered everywhere that you might spend your time even if you think that you already know all that there is to know about a place. Keep your eyes open, talk to other people about the places that you visit and be willing to learn something new every day!