Once it stored our sofas and valuables, cooled our produce — in an icehouse designed by Josias Joesler — and helped move our goods from hither to yon.

Today, the old Tucson Warehouse and Transfer building houses plumbing supplies, art galleries and craftsman shops.

For 91 years, the original solid-concrete building has served as a landmark on East Sixth Street.

Thanks to current co-owner Mark Berman — and city officials who've agreed to realign a roadway project that threatened Berman's business — this old warehouse should remain a viable part of downtown for years to come.

Concrete big box downtown holds nine decades of memories

Remnants of an old corral still stood when they bought the place.

"It had a tin roof and at one time a dirt floor. It was a horrible structure, falling apart," says Mark Berman, co-owner of Tucson Warehouse and Transfer.

The corral — needed when horses still helped transport goods around town — is long gone. Still standing, however, is the hulking four-story concrete building at East Sixth Street and North Seventh Avenue that generations of Tucsonans have known.

Here is where we once stored our Oriental rugs and silver sets, our divans and ottomans, even our cars at one time.

On the third floor, now empty, was perhaps Tucson's first mini storage facility — 61 individual rooms, each with a white door.

An old rate chart lists fees of $35.25 a year, plus a $52.75 handling charge. Presumably, that covered the cost of moving one's possessions up and down the water-powered elevator.

"There are two or three left in Tucson, but nobody uses them anymore," says Berman.

These days, the first floor of the warehouse mainly serves as a showroom for the sleek plumbing fixtures of Berman's family-owned Benjamin Plumbing Supply. The rest of the ground floor is rented out to tenants, including a couple of art galleries, an architect's office and a framing shop.

"For now, we're full as far as rentable spaces," says Berman, who would one day like to develop the top three floors as offices.

No doubt any new tenants will hew to the history of the building, as has Berman.

Benjamin Plumbing Supply's showroom still has the original concrete floors, painted brick walls and high ceilings. Near the front entrance is a huge, still-working floor scale — one of three in the building.

At one time, says Berman, the University of Arizona athletic department would send its heftier athletes over to be weighed on the scale. Doctors also sent their heaviest patients there.

"People still come in here and tell me they once used the scale every week," says Berman, who's developed a keen interest in the history of the building.

A copy of the construction agreement shows the original 16,000-square-foot, four-story, reinforced-concrete warehouse was built in 1918 for a total of $30,260.15.

But old Star stories indicate that the company's history goes back to 1892, when it was known as Pioneer Transfer, located on the northeast corner of Stone Avenue and Pennington Street. Moving was accomplished with a couple of wagons furnished by Fred Ronstadt's company.

A later location was at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Congress. Then came the move to East Sixth Street.

Even then, the firm was still using horses. According to yet another Star story, the company gave up its last team of horses — Clydesdales, no less — in 1932. The horses wound up at University Farms and were quartered there for years.

In 1936, an icehouse designed by noted architect Josias Joesler went in, at a cost of $34,520. That price tag also included a caretaker's quarters, and repairing and repainting the original warehouse.

Once known as Home Ice and Coal Co., the icehouse, says Berman, included a 6,000-square-foot ice plant, with 6,000 square feet of storage in the basement. A well on the property furnished the water for the ice, says Berman, whose business now occupies the old icehouse.

Trains rolling through on the nearby tracks loaded up with the ice for their produce companies. So did regular customers. "People are always coming in with stories of buying ice here," says Berman.

Over the years, the company, which for years served as the local agent for the Mayflower Company, moved everything from a 125-ton house to the marble that went into the old Valley National Bank downtown.

In time, the warehouse grew to 11 buildings totaling 70,000 square feet, accommodating not just the moving company and people's household items, but tenants such as the old Rainbo Baking Co., which suffered a fire and moved to a new location by 1950.

That was the same year Mark Berman's late father, Martin, and Martin's brother, Sidney, bought Benjamin Plumbing Supply from Benjamin Anton and located it downtown at East 10th Street and North Fifth Avenue.

In 1972 the business moved to 210 E. Broadway, and in 1976, Martin Berman bought out his brother. When his father died in 1986, Mark Berman, along with his mother, Ruth Berman, became the owners.

"We rented property all over town for warehouses," says Mark. In 1989, he and his mother bought the recently vacated Tucson Warehouse and Transfer property and consolidated their inventory there. In 2000, they moved their showroom to the site.

"It took me years to find my way around," says Mark, who discovered a less-than-empty warehouse.

"We inherited hundreds of storage boxes — big coffinlike cardboard boxes that used to hold sofas."

They also inherited an X-ray machine left by a local hospital. "They were not interested in getting it back," says Mark. "We tried to sell it in Mexico. They weren't interested. It's still here."

They also discovered three safes, including one that remained locked until nine years ago, when a former warehouse employee who knew the combination showed up .

"He walked right in, had this little card in his wallet with all the numbers and opened it up," says Mark. "There was a bunch of stuff inside but nothing valuable."

Never mind. The true value lies in the history of this old warehouse — and what it has become to its occupants.

Tenants glad to have made the difficult move to 'that wonderful building'

They are here because they want to be. Not because it was easy.

Take architect Dino Sakellar, whose firm relocated to a portion of the Tucson Warehouse and Transfer building in 1999.

In business on the northwest side of town for 24 years, Sakellar had been looking to relocate downtown for some time.

"I was trying to buy a building but did not find anything that fit." Then he found this old warehouse and worked with its owner, Mark Berman.

"The biggest thing we did was take down the north wall along the street. It was solid wall, concrete columns with clay infill panels," says Sakellar.

Today, a bank of windows fills that former wall, looking out from the 3,000-square-foot business at 100 E. Sixth St.

Sakellar also had to build a wall to separate his space from a ramp and old elevator, giving Berman access to the elevator.

Long gone are the bathtubs from Benjamin Plumbing Supply that once filled what would become Sakellar's business.

Still here are the high ceilings, along with the huge concrete support pillars, now decorated at their tops. Large exposed metal tubes for cooling and heating snake beneath the ceiling.

Also still here is a large walk-in vault. Once used to store Oriental rugs and silver, it's now a conference room. "We kid contractors that we will lock them in there until they come around to our way of thinking," says Sakellar.

For Mike Dominguez and Candice Davis, husband-and-wife owners of Davis-Dominguez Gallery, it was location, location, location.

"We wanted to be in a triangle between the University of Arizona Museum of Art and the Tucson Museum of Art," says Dominguez, who moved the gallery to the warehouse address at 154 E. Sixth St. in 1998.

Although the gallery began downtown in 1976, it had been located for years on North Oracle Road near Ina Road.

Not only did Dominguez and Davis want a more urban setting for their contemporary fine art, they also needed more space than what their 1,500-square-foot gallery could offer.

What they have now, 5,400 square feet, more than triples that space.

When they first saw the place, says Dominguez, they had to look past the trash and graffiti and up to the curved wooden ceiling and trusses of an addition built in 1938 for a Packard dealership.

The wooden ceiling and trusses remain, as do the now-powerwashed concrete floors.

"Exposed mechanicals, concrete floors and white walls are the hallmark of urban galleries," says Dominguez.

The new gallery, says Davis, was a success from the beginning. "The first year we doubled our sales. We could show big paintings here."

And, she adds, "We would have never gotten this kind of space up in the foothills."

Before Peter Baer, owner of Baer Joinery, could move his business to its present warehouse location at 125 E. Seventh St., he first had to tear down a few interior walls and wire the entire 2,000-square-foot interior.

"There was no wiring to speak of," says Baer, who makes custom doors and furniture. Here since 1999, Baer relocated from a shop near Campbell Avenue and Broadway.

"Before I took over the space, Benjamin Supply was using it for storage during their remodels," he says.

Despite the work involved, Baer is happy he made the move. "I'm here because of Mark Berman — and that wonderful building."

City working to lessen the impact of Aviation extension on the site

For years, the landmark Tucson Warehouse and Transfer property at East Sixth Street and North Seventh Avenue has stood in the figurative shadow of the proposed Downtown Links project, which extends the Barraza-Aviation Parkway north of downtown to Interstate 10.

The new roadway, mandated by a 2006 Regional Transportation Authority election, would have initially sliced off a portion of the warehouse and also eliminated a parking lot and cut off access for unloading trucks, says owner Mark Berman.

While Berman still stands a good chance of losing his parking lot to the west, as well as a south portion of the complex of buildings that make up the warehouse, it was the loss of his unloading area that would have forced a move on his part.

But recently, the city has indicated it would be willing to move the new roadway enough so that large trucks could still access the warehouse site.

"With a green light from his architect, we're reasonably confident we will be able to configure the roadway and acquire what little roadway we need from him to meet all his needs," says Tucson Transportation Director Jim Glock.

Work on the project could start as early as next spring, although it will not extend to Berman's property for a few more years, Glock adds.

Berman, who was almost sure at one point that he would have to move, says he was "shocked" by the city's efforts to accommodate him and credits City Councilwoman Nina Trasoff. "She asked us what it would take for us to stay and operate," he says.

"We did not want to lose a very creative and long-standing family business," says Trasoff, who arranged a meeting with Berman and members of the city's transportation department. "I think we will have a viable solution that maintains the integrity of the link and accommodates a good business."

Says Berman: "If they can do what they say they'll do, we'll be able to operate there."

DID YOU KNOW

Tucson Warehouse and Transfer once made daily deliveries of the newsprint used by the Arizona Daily Star and the Tucson Citizen, then separately located downtown.

Bonnie Henry's column appears Sundays and Mondays. Reach her at 434-4074 or at bhenry@azstarnet.com, or write to 3295 W. Ina Road, Suite 125, Tucson AZ 85741. Blog: go.azstarnet.com/bonniehenry