Mid-century marvel

Tucsonan saves home, memory of Botanical Gardens benefactor
2013-05-19T00:00:00Z 2013-05-26T19:00:05Z Mid-century marvelGabrielle Fimbres Special To The Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Harrison Yocum had a passion for plants, rocks and minerals, and filled his home with his beloved collections.

Not just a few here and there, but mountains of rocks and minerals and yards full of palms, cacti, succulents and exotic flora.

And then there were the books - thousands of them on botanicals, dating as far back as the 17th century and filling Yocum's home, which served as the original Tucson Botanical Gardens starting in the 1960s.

When Yocum died in 2010 at age 87, he left his beloved collections and his home on Jefferson Avenue to the current Tucson Botanical Gardens, a lovely gift indeed.

Thousands of Yocum's beloved books, plants, rocks and minerals have been added to the collections there.

"Here is a man who had a dream of his collection being a botanical garden, and now his passion for geology and plants is found throughout the Tucson Botanical Gardens," said Michelle Conklin, TBG executive director. A tribute for Yocum has been created at the gardens, 2150 N. Alvernon Way.

But time and the elements left Yocum's 1955 red-brick home uninhabitable. Folks at the gardens investigated whether the building - badly in need of repair - could be used as a museum. When that was not feasible, it was placed on the market for $60,000.

When there were no takers, Tucson lawyer Spencer Smith, a long-time TBG board member, stepped in and bought the home for the asking price in June 2012.

He and his wife, Katheryn Smith, took on the project to help preserve the memory of Harrison Yocum.

Spencer Smith, a Tucson native who received a degree in geological engineering at the University of Arizona in addition to a law degree, was drawn to the home by his own appreciation of geology.

He thought he would spend a couple of months cleaning the place up - hauling away crumbling fixtures, connecting it to the sewer system, repairing the plumbing and replacing the original 1955 furnace that hadn't worked in years so he could rent the property or sell it.

But as he labored, spending virtually every Saturday and Sunday from sunup to sundown at the house, a funny thing happened.

The place grew on him.

"In December we made the decision - let's make it a real house," Spencer Smith said. "I had no idea what I was starting."

But once he started, there was no going back.

Friday night was date night for Spencer and Katheryn - dinner and a trip to Home Depot, launching the work weekend.

At 825 square feet, the home had two tiny bedrooms and a bathroom the size of a closet. Yocum had added a room in the back, but the ceilings were barely 6 feet high, making it unusable. Some of his construction used fiberglass, letting in all of the elements.

Smith and his brother, Steven, ripped off the roof, tore down a rotting greenhouse, took down handmade plywood kitchen cabinets and removed six layers of flooring. They hauled away 95 cubic yards of material and dead plants.

Now nearly complete, the home stands at 1,700 square feet, with a master bedroom suite added. The home is airy and bright, with new ceramic tile, cabinetry and fixtures.

"I wanted to make it livable but keep as much of the character as possible," Smith said.

Visitors are greeted with a stunning 110-foot rock wall that Smith created from one of Yocum's towering rock mountains in the backyard. It matches the front wall of the home and an interior wall, built carefully by Yocum decades earlier.

Each of the large rocks that make up the walls is a little different, with shades of gold, purple and blue sprinkled throughout. There's oxide copper - perhaps from the Bisbee mines - sulfite copper, white quartz and sparkly-gold pyrite, with geodes added to the mix.

Where did all the rocks come from?

"I'd love to know, but I have no idea," Smith said.

Smith left some of Yocum's creations untouched, including stacks of sandstone rocks in the garden that Yocum whimsically called totems to ward off evil spirits, according to Star archives.

After Yocum and a small group of botany lovers launched the Tucson Botanical Gardens in Yocum's home in 1964, he typically welcomed 100 visitors a month who came to wander his gardens. He also taught rock- and mineral-identification classes at Pima Community College for more than 30 years, accompanying students on nearly 900 field trips.

On this remodeling journey, Smith has met dozens of people who have shared stories about Yocum. Stories often revolve around his curious attire - a khaki Boy Scout uniform that he paired with jodhpurs, chunky turquoise jewelry and a hat, frequently of the Daniel Boone coonskin or leprechaun variety.

"I must have had 50 or 75 people who stopped by who knew Harrison," Smith said. "They all had a story to tell."

Those stories were important to Smith as he worked to create a comfortable home that incorporated Yocum's passion for nature.

"There were times when I thought I was never going to finish it," Smith said.

But he would put on his favorite music or listen to football games or Car Talk on the radio, and the hours passed. "It's been fun," Smith said. "I get to Sunday night with no stress."

The Smiths estimate they have invested $65,000 in the home. They are considering moving in.

"It grows on you," Katheryn Smith said.

Said TBG's Conklin, "There could not have been a better person to take on this project. Spencer has a true appreciation for the neighborhood and for Harrison Yocum, and that is a gift."

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

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