WHERE WE LIVE: COLONIA SOLANA

Ambience of country life in center of the city

Coyotes can be heard howling in backyards, yet residents are 10 minutes from downtown
2013-08-11T00:00:00Z 2013-12-05T13:55:39Z Ambience of country life in center of the cityGabrielle Fimbres Special To The Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Editor's note: This is the next in our series exploring Tucson neighborhoods - the homes, the vibes, the people. Look for the Where We Live series monthly in the Home + Life section of the Arizona Daily Star.

As Tucson boomed during the first half of the 20th century and beyond, neighborhoods sprung up in similar fashion - perfectly straight rows of homes tucked close together and adorned with grassy lawns and imported trees and posies.

But there was one neighborhood unlike any other - Colonia Solana.

Established in 1928 and known as Tucson's first suburban subdivision, Colonia Solana sits on 158 acres of desert landscape at the southeast corner of East Broadway and South Country Club Road.

Nearly all of the 110 homes sit on an acre of land, tucked away behind creosote, prickly pear, mesquite and towering eucalyptus. While seated at one of Tucson's busiest intersections, the neighborhood seems bathed in seclusion, with narrow, winding roads and a glorious sense of quiet.

Stanley Feldman moved into Colonia Solana as a young boy in the 1940s with his parents, Meyer and Esther, and his brother, Ira.

"I grew up here when it was way out in the country," recalled Feldman, a Tucson lawyer and former Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justice. "It was a great place to grow up."

He and his wife, Norma, moved back into the neighborhood 34 years ago, into a 1937 home that's a stone's throw from his childhood digs.

"The neighborhood still has much of the same feeling," he said. "Here we are in the middle of town but you can sit in the backyard and feel like you are in the country."

He is 10 minutes from his downtown office and from sporting events at the University of Arizona.

Said Norma Feldman, "It's a wonderful community. We all know each other. For us it's a perfect place to live."

William DuPont, who has served as president of the neighborhood association for nearly 25 years, has lived off and on in the neighborhood since 1977 and permanently since 1981. He is an eighth generation Tucsonan and a descendant of José Ignacio Moraga, commander of the Tucson presidio.

DuPont's ranch-style home, built in 1951, was designed by pioneer female architect Anne Rysdale.

He said Colonia Solana is known as "the hidden jewel of Arizona" by the State Historic Preservation Office.

At the heart of the neighborhood is Arroyo Chico, a lush riparian area that neighbors have worked hard to preserve and keep free of invasive plants. The neighborhood is designed around the arroyo, DuPont said.

"The streets are based on how the water runs to the arroyo," he said. "You might be heading east and all of the sudden you are heading north. (Developer Stephen Child) wanted a design that kept the essence of the desert vegetation and the natural beauty intact. That is what set Colonia Solana apart from any neighborhood in the state."

Eighty-three species of birds have been documented in the neighborhood. Head west to the other side of Country Club, and that number drops to 25.

"We have coyotes, raccoons, bobcats, javelina," DuPont said. "Everybody understands and respects the essence of this neighborhood. It's not perfectly manicured."

The neighborhood has been home to Linda Ronstadt and is also the site of the nation's first passive solar home, DuPont said.

Kriss Nicholas and her husband, Michael, have lived in Colonia Solana since 1995. Tucson architect Arthur T. Brown built their 1,800-square-foot home in 1948.

Kriss Nicholas, a Realtor, and her husband, a contractor, expanded it to 4,800 square feet, adding a pool, outdoor kitchen and a pool/guest house.

"We have a lot of privacy," she said. "We have 40 mesquites in our front yard. We love the wildlife. Recently there was a bobcat on our front patio wall. The coyotes howl practically in our backyard. We love that."

She appreciates all that neighboring Reid Park has to offer.

"I love Sunday mornings," she said. "The roads are quieter and you can occasionally hear a lion roar and you hear the monkeys going nuts (at the Reid Park Zoo). Whenever they have ball games we step outside and see the fireworks."

They walk the path at Reid Park and take in concerts at the band shell.

"It is a friendly neighborhood. There are people who have been here a long, long time, and now there are young professionals with kids moving in," Nicholas said. "I love that."

Spirit and Amelie Messingham have lived in their historic home since 2008.

"We feel fortunate to be part of this neighborhood," said Spirit Messingham, a Realtor whose 1958 ranch-style home was built by Tom Gist.

His wife, an attorney, runs on the path at Reid Park, and they frequently walk to dinner at Sushi Garden in Broadway Village.

"You can't get much more central but with the acre lots, it has unbelievable privacy," Spirit Messingham said.

Homes typically sell between $425,000 and more than a million, he said. While they don't come on the market often, two are currently for sale.

One listed at $1.2 million is the home of Tucson businessman and Rio Nuevo Chairman Fletcher McCusker and his family. The 5,700-square-foot, five-bedroom home was built in 1936 for prominent archaeologist William Shirley Fulton, founder of the Amerind Foundation.

The white Spanish Colonial Revival home with a red tile roof was built by noted architect Merritt Starkweather, who also built the Arizona Inn.

Stepping into the living room is like stepping into a scaled-down version of the inn's library, with a stunning fireplace and wood-beamed ceilings.

The original chandelier from 1936 hangs over the dining room table. Etchings of birds and flowers decorate windows.

The home was designed to showcase pottery and other artifacts collected by Fulton.

McCusker, who is moving to a smaller home with his wife after their son grew up and moved away, said the house needs "a family with a lot of kids running around."

"It's like a little piece of history," he said.

About Colonia Solana

Landscape architect Stephen Child designed Colonia Solana in 1928, incorporating natural elements including Arroyo Chico. Developers embraced desert landscape for possibly the first time in Tucson.

The neighborhood is designed around five small triangular parks and intersecting curvilinear streets. Architectural styles range from Spanish Colonial Revival to post-World War II ranch houses designed by prominent architects including Roy Place and Arthur T. Brown. Four homes were designed by architect Josias Joesler.

The 158 acres were acquired originally by Thomas Brown in 1907 under the Homestead Act. Brown wanted to build a home to be near his wife, who was being treated in a tuberculosis sanitarium.

In 1918, Paul H. M. Brinton, a chemistry professor at the University of Arizona, bought the land for $3 an acre, despite his friends' warnings that it was a poor business decision.

The land was bought by Harry E. Bryant for $40,000 in 1926. Bryant did not want to continue the gridiron pattern of development that was found west of Country Club Road.

In 1928, he hired Child - a sophisticated landscape architect from San Francisco who had been a winter visitor in Tucson - to create a new kind of project. Child named it Colonia Solana, and it offered an alternative to El Encanto, a more formal subdivision to the north, which was announced earlier that year.

While the Great Depression slowed the development of Colonia Solana and wiped out Bryant financially, the neighborhood was developed over the next 45 years.

Sources: City of Tucson and A Guide to Tucson's Historic Neighborhoods

Contact local freelance writer Gabrielle Fimbres at gfimbres@comcast.net

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