WHERE WE LIVE: JEFFERSON PARK

Residents relish history of old homes

Today's tour will aid senior program, help pay off debt for historic-designation process
2013-04-14T00:00:00Z 2013-12-05T14:02:01Z Residents relish history of old homesGabrielle 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.

In 1898, a young German immigrant made claim to a barren chunk of land known today as Jefferson Park Neighborhood.

As the story goes, Anna Stattelman homesteaded on a 158-acre tract of land north of the University of Arizona. In 1899, she married Frank Lester, the superintendent of Mammoth Mines. She was a passenger in wagons that traveled to and from the mines, and was said to once have hidden a pile of gold bullion from suspected bandits underneath the nursing baby in her arms.

Anna Lester filed the first neighborhood subdivision plats, along with Haskell Cohen, a Russian immigrant and optician who sold eyeglasses on downtown Tucson street corners.

With the dream of creating a family neighborhood, Lester, the mother of three, built homes and gave away property as wedding gifts. The strategy worked, and by 1960, the neighborhood looked much like it does today. With 788 properties - 609 of which are historic - on 272 acres, the neighborhood received historic designation in 2012.

Some of those earliest homes still stand, including an adobe craftsman bungalow built by Yaqui Indians for Anna Lester in 1912.

Sue Clement and her husband live in the old Lester home today. They were drawn to the history of the home, built before there was a graded road.

Lester drew in the dirt with a stick to show builders what she wanted. She expanded the home in the 1920s and rented part to UA students, according to the homeowners. The house was restored in the 1970s, years after Lester's death.

"The house has character," Clement said. "I love that it's a historic home, not a tract home, and I love that it is close to the university. Mountain Avenue is a lovely street because it is so pedestrian and bike friendly."

Clement enjoys time spent in a swing on the front porch on cool evenings, or sitting by a giant fireplace built from volcanic rock. "It's relaxing. It's like an oasis."

Renée and Michael Wallner, both retired teachers, moved into Jefferson Park as a young couple in 1974. The native New Yorkers were looking for an urban experience.

"What we like the best about this neighborhood is all of the locally owned businesses on Campbell - Blue Willow, Raging Sage, Beyond Bread, Pastiche," Renée Wallner said. "We believe strongly in supporting local business and we avoid buying in big boxes."

When their girls, Mina and Jennifer, were little, the family walked to coffee shops and restaurants, pretending they were back in New York.

Their 1930s, two-bedroom home - made from double brick and stucco - is small, "but people tend to be closer if they live in a small house," Wallner said.

She said residents have had to protect the neighborhood from the construction of mini-dorms - student living facilities - and other commercial development.

"It's a great neighborhood," Renée Wallner said. "We're urban people and we like the urban environment. We are more attracted to older spaces than newer construction. Our daughters are both living in Manhattan and they have said, 'We are gone - you can move.' But we're not moving."

Dale Brenneman and her husband Arthur Vokes have lived in a 1936 adobe home on Linden Street for 21 years.

The home is a work in progress. Originally, the only way to the backyard was through the master bedroom, so the couple created a hallway that leads to the back patio. They also added a new kitchen.

When they moved in, there was not much in the backyard other than dead Bermuda grass. They have added a guest house, a garden, a seating area and a waterfall that uses water harvested from the roof.

"I wanted any remodeling to be complementary with the history of the house, but provide some of the modern conveniences," said Brenneman, who works at the Arizona State Museum with her husband.

Brenneman said work that went into changing zoning guidelines that would limit mini-dorms and the preparation required for the neighborhood's historic designation "has done a lot to bring neighbors together."

Joan Hall, president of the Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association, said the neighborhood was faced with the demolition of historic homes to make way for new, oversized buildings, including mini-dorms.

As a result of neighborhood efforts, a group dwelling code amendment limits the number of unrelated people that can live in residential properties. Through the process, neighbors strengthened relationships with builders and city officials, Hall said.

"It was quite the victory," she said. "There is nothing like a challenge to build solidarity amongst neighbors."

Joan Daniels, who raised five children in a 1943 home on Edison Street, called it "a victory in progress that has brought the neighbors together."

"In order to protect that ambience, that really nice setting around the university, you've got to protect the neighborhoods," Daniels said.

She was also involved in the formation of the Friends of Jefferson Park. The group holds fundraisers, including today's home tour (see "If You Go" on Page E9), to pay down $38,000 in expenses incurred through the historic-nomination process. The process took eight years and 500 volunteer hours.

She has enjoyed her 30 years in the neighborhood.

"It was the perfect place to raise kids," Daniels said. "Our whole block had kids and they would play on the streets. There are not so many now, but I'm starting to see more kids, and more parents walking with children in strollers."

She said the International School of Tucson, located in what once was Jefferson Park Elementary School, has become a "wonderful neighborhood partner."

"They have been a fine addition to the neighborhood, and it's so good to see little kids in the neighborhood again."

Zach MacDonald and his wife, Stephanie Bourn-MacDonald, live in a 1926 Spanish colonial revival home with daughter Ryan and son Milo.

The home's claim to fame? It served as a filming location for the Oscar-winning 1974 Martin Scorsese film "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore."

"It's a neat piece of history," MacDonald said. "We liked the character of the home and the proximity to the university and to downtown and the modern streetcar that is going in."

The family moved to the neighborhood in 2011 in anticipation of their daughter starting school at the UA and his wife starting graduate school there.

The home is on a one-third acre lot. "It was important for us to have that yard so Milo can go out and play and have friends over," MacDonald said of his son, who will start kindergarten in the fall.

"It's a great neighborhood and a great place to live," he said.

If you go

• What: Jefferson Park Historic Neighborhood home tour, featuring a food-truck roundup, yard art and plant sale, arts and crafts booths and a silent auction.

• When: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. today. Docents in period dress will lead walking tours of the historic Lester Block at 1 p.m., 2 p.m. and 3 p.m.

• Where: The tour, which includes nine homes, will start at the International School of Tucson, 1701 E. Seneca St.

• How much: $10. Proceeds will help pay off debt incurred during the historic nomination process, and will benefit Lend a Hand Senior Program.

• Info: jeffersonpark.info

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

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