Midtown structure of 'Brutalism' style facing demolition

Group urges county to preserve it; Pima plans new communications hub
2011-05-10T00:00:00Z 2014-07-23T17:39:27Z Midtown structure of 'Brutalism' style facing demolitionTom Beal Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
May 10, 2011 12:00 am  • 

It's tough to generate affection for something called "brutal."

But a Tucson architecture group is trying to persuade Pima County to drop its plans to demolish part of a building it considers a prime example of the Modern architectural style known as Brutalism.

The demolition is planned as the county transforms the former Valley National Bank data center at 3434 E. 22nd St. into a secure compound to house an emergency communications hub called the Pima County Wireless Integration Network.

County voters approved $92 million for the project in 2004. It was designed in the wake of communications problems during the terrorist attack in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, to ensure that Pima County emergency responders can communicate with each other in the event of catastrophe.

The Modern Architecture Preservation Project considers the building one of the 50 most significant examples of Modern architecture in Tucson and is asking the Board of Supervisors to change the county's plans.

The Tucson Operations Center of the former Valley National Bank was built in 1972.

Under its president, Walter Bimson, Valley National Bank pursued a building program that focused on distinctive architecture. It hired Cain, Nelson, Wares & Cook, which designed a poured-on-site concrete building, surrounded by native vegetation that employed some of the earliest water-harvesting techniques in Tucson, said architect Chris Evans, president of the Modern Architecture Preservation Project.

Brutalism focused on the overall form of the buildings and not adornment. Prominent examples here include the West Campus of Pima Community College and Tucson police headquarters.

The VNB data center was never a public building and went largely unnoticed behind the trees that surrounded it, although a round concrete-and-glass building on the north is visible from East 22nd Street. That is the part Pima County plans to tear down.

In a memo to the Board of Supervisors sent Friday, County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said he intends to proceed with plans to tear down the 500-square-foot round building that once served as the building's cafeteria. That is the only place on-site where an emergency-management operations center can be located, the memo says.

"Demolition of this structure is necessary to minimize risks associated with maintaining public-safety communications during an emergency," Huckelberry wrote. Legally, the county has no requirement to preserve it.

Supervisors' Chairman Ramón Valadez said he'd like to save the round building, but "we really need to have an emergency operations center. It's vital we have it up and running."

Much of the eight-acre site is within the approach-departure corridor for Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, said Reid Spaulding, the county's director of facilities management. The county can't put the emergency center on the south side of the property because it intends to apply for federal grants, which it wouldn't qualify for in an approach-take-off zone, he said.

Also, to be used for emergency operations, the building "needs to withstand certain seismic and cataclysmic events," Spaulding said. Modifications needed to do that are being done internally.

The building is less than 50 years old, the usual cutoff for application for historic status, but it is significant enough to merit early designation, said Linda Mayro, the county's cultural resources manager. Her office is documenting the site's history before demolition.

The building is architecturally and historically significant, she said, but as with many Modern buildings "there is no regulation or ordinance that would prevent it from being destroyed or altered."

Evans said his Modern Architecture Preservation Project has asked the state historic preservation officer to review the plans to ensure procedures were followed properly. The Tucson-Pima County Historical Commission has also scheduled a review for Wednesday.

Commissioner Demion Clinco, an architectural historian, said Pima County has previously shown foresight in its treatment of modern architecture. He cited the decision to renovate and expand the Murphy-Wilmot Library, rather than demolish and replace it. He said it's a shame that isn't the case on the bank building.

"We often overlook the significant architecture of our recent past," Clinco said.

Contact reporter Tom Beal at tbeal@azstarnet.com or 573-4158.

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