The adobe building at the southwest corner of South Convent Avenue and West 17th Street is a historically significant part of Barrio Historico and was built in the 1880s.

DEAN KNUTH / ARIZONA DAILY STAR

A significant, but crumbling, adobe building on South Convent Avenue, in the heart of Barrio Historico, has been an eyesore, a magnet for transients and a blight on that neighborhood south of downtown for years.

Still, residents say they fear the 125-year-old building, owned by a law firm pension fund benefiting the family of mayoral candidate Jonathan Rothschild, will be demolished.

That concern is based partly on the fact the run-down row house has essentially sat vacant since the 1960s, declared uninhabitable by the city, and partly because that's what the pension fund representative threatened to do when the city wrote the property up last August.

To reduce visual blight, the city code says buildings can't be boarded up for more than 180 days. After the owners appealed a city finding last August they were in violation of that time limit, the owners were granted a five-year waiver from the requirement after the demolition possibility was raised.

Rothschild, who was the managing partner of the Mesch, Clark & Rothschild law firm until he stepped out of that role to run for mayor, is not a beneficiary of the pension fund. His father, Lowell Rothschild, and attorney Doug Clark are the only beneficiaries of the profit-sharing plan that bought the 5,600-square-foot building in 2006.

Rothschild says he is an advocate of preserving historic neighborhoods, and said the property should be preserved. But as mayor, he said, he won't vote on anything that has to do with the law firm because of a conflict of interest.

He said he no longer shares in the profits of the law firm, where he is an employee, not an owner. Assuming he wins the race - his only current challenge is from the Green Party - he said he'll resign from the firm entirely.

The home, built in the 1880s by Juan Pascale, an Italian immigrant carpenter, is "a significant part of the historic fabric of the barrio," said the city's historic preservation officer, Jonathan Mabry, who calls it one of the best examples of housing constructed for railroad workers.

It is also one of the best examples of urban decay. The owners even said so in their appeal of the city's order, noting photography students are drawn to it to document blight.

The neighborhood historic review committee rejected plans to put in metal doors and screens as a temporary security fix, saying it would be historically inappropriate and would further damage the property.

With vandals and vagrants routinely smashing windows and doors to get into the building, plywood has been a more effective deterrent, said Doug Clark's son Greg Clark, who is the property manager.

Neighbors aren't crazy about the plywood, but they say the owners have been responsive. If they get phone calls about graffiti, or break-ins, they're usually there within the day.

But that isn't enough to satisfy nearby property owner and developer Warren Michaels, who notes that the home is rapidly approaching what he calls "demolition by neglect," because it's nearing the point at which stabilization efforts will start failing. "I'd love to see it renovated, but just boarding it up and throwing plaster on the exterior isn't going to stabilize it."

Michaels said the owners have a responsibility to preserve what he calls a historically significant property.

"Whenever you buy a historic building anywhere in the city, but especially in the barrio, there's a certain stewardship that goes with that ownership," he said. "I think that group has lost its way on the stewardship part of that equation."

Greg Clark maintains that the property has been stabilized in a reasonable fashion, including adding rain gutters and keeping an eye on the roof.

He cited a list of reasons why more hasn't been done with the property - the economy, difficulty in obtaining financing, and the fact that the downtown Rio Nuevo project has yet to generate sufficient buzz to counter a limp housing and commercial market.

Susan Frank, the owner of a downtown exercise studio, has lived next door to the house for four years. She continues to have concerns about safety, since last year at this time, fireworks were set off in the yard, which has a large amount of debris.

And while she continues to love the beauty of the neighborhood, she wishes more would be done to bring the building back to life.

"I feel very sad about that house," she said. "I would be heartbroken if it were torn down. It's such a gem."

Clark agreed that the building is a "charming, wonderful relic of the 1880s" and there are no plans to tear it down. He only suggested doing that because the city was trying to enforce the code violation, which is a standard he said that couldn't be met without inordinate and unnecessary expense.

Since the house is in a historic district, replacing the plywood with just any windows and doors won't do.

Plus, many of the door openings are too low for minimum height requirements and many of the windows too small to meet current code for emergency egress.

Rehabilitation will be a multi-million-dollar project, Clark said, noting that the owners will either wait for the market to recover or seek out investors.

Clark acknowledges there has been some grumbling in the neighborhood about whether the family has received special treatment, since the law firm represented the city in a high-profile and drawn-out battle with another property owner in the barrio over alleged water damage.

But if anything, Clark said, "it was almost the opposite. They seemed to go to great lengths to enforce the standards."

He said the only answer now is patience.

"What does the neighborhood want - to force another sale?" he asked. All that would do is add to a long list of defeated owners who started out with more optimism than realism. "And then they realize what a giant expense it is."

On StarNet: Read the Star's local politics blog, Pueblo Politics, at go.azstarnet.com/pueblopolitics

Contact reporter Rhonda Bodfield at rbodfield@azstarnet.com or 573-4243.