house made of mud

rescuing a sonoran row house

Month: October 2014

little house of horrors. um, i mean mud.

i was going to do the promised blog post on more of the house’s history, but it occurs that this is halloween week. so i thought that instead i’d share something a bit more, well, horrible.

so. as it turns out, at least a couple of films have been made at our ‘location’ over the years. according to greg clark, the former caretaker, a troupe of dancers shot some of their footage there, while one of his friends, a local filmmaker named quinn davis, has used the house in two of his movies. in fact, when susan denis, our realtor, went over to change the padlocks on the place for us on closing day (because we were out of town), she found both greg and quinn in the yard. turned out quinn needed to re-shoot a few scenes for his latest movie (apparently once it’s done, it will screen at the loft, though greg doesn’t know what it’s called or when it might be released). susan reminded me that the blood (?) we found on the sofa in the kitchen could have been part of the set (yeah sure, susan, if you say so).

the film is reportedly a comedy-horror flick. but whatever it is, or whatever it might be titled, susan (who happens to be a terrific photographer) snapped the images below while she was there on closing day. definitely halloween-ish, i’d say.


quinn davis (on the left) and greg clark, the former caretaker.


not sure what this head was for. in fact, i’m not even sure i want to know what the head was for.


bloody scythe, anyone? (maybe we’ll eventually have to get one of our own to stick in this tree).

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tucson photographer david scott moyer recently asked if he could shoot some before photos of our barrio house. the results are hauntingly beautiful images of decay. (i am admittedly both in love with the decrepitude and freaked out anew at everything that needs fixing…)

he was kind enough to say i could share some of his images here. thank you, david!

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plans, plans and more plans.

“we’ve got to get off the pot.”  this, yes, is what our contractor said to me last week when we were over at the house.  “what,” i said to him, “do you think i’ve been trying to do?”

before writing more about the house’s history (which is long and fairly intriguing), i thought i’d take a break to say what we’ve been doing since, yes, march (!), when we bought the place. the answer, of course, is plans.

turns out that when you’re dealing with a huge project involving an historic property, plans can take a looooong time. the reason we were at the house, for instance, was to try to settle questions about the heating and cooling system (attempting to cram air vents and access panels into a house with 100+ old ceiling beams in every room and virtually no closets can be tricky). just that issue alone has set us back a good two weeks. we were supposed to be done with the architectural drawings by this thursday. oh well.

but anyway. the plans. i’ve mentioned that our house is a Sonoran row house. that means that back at the end of the 19th century and into the early 20th, not one family lived there, but many families, all of them in a row. typically people would begin with a main house, then build sets of rooms onto the sides (as needed, or until they ran out of property) that they would then let out to renters, many of whom worked on the railroad that runs through the middle of tucson. see the drawing below.



the former main house is shaded in gray. on each side, you can see the row houses, all of which had a door at the front, then one at the back that opened onto the central courtyard which everyone shared (that’s where the privy was–the foundation of ours is still there, and people have told us that that’s where we’ll find “the interesting stuff”– hmm).

i love thinking of all of the little families that maybe once inhabited our house, or the young couples, or maybe young guys far from home trying to make a buck or two. it’s a pretty cool history (and you can bet i’ll be spending some time at the local historical society trying to pinpoint just who all might have lived there through the years).

but the set up also makes for a challenge to the modern buyer, and i’m sure it’s one of the reasons the house sat on the market for so long. while it’s true we have a lot of rooms in the house, they’re also all pretty small (‘it’s rabbit-warren-y” as chris puts it). figuring out how to make them work for us–while also attempting to keep the historic feel of the house–took some thinking, especially since we wanted to leave the house’s footprint as intact as we possibly could. a couple of the architects we talked to early on had big plans for either additions or adding more structures in the courtyard (which admittedly might have been more economically feasible because we could have sold the units), and apparently at one point in the past there was even a developer who wanted to pave the back for parking (yikes!). but we knew from the start that we already liked it pretty much just the way it is.

so i spent a lot of nights scribbling on trace paper laid over a sketch of the layout, trying out different configurations. and then we took our plans in to the architects, who had some excellent suggestions. in the end we came up with the floor plan below, which removes only two walls (one to create a living/dining room and the other to make a master bedroom actually large enough to hold our bed–yay!) and adds three new doorways (to link the former row houses so you can walk from one part of the house to the other without going outside). on one end we’ll have a nice sized rental unit, and there’s also an office space that could be rented out (though it will be chris’s study when we live there). the only other small alteration we’re making is to expand the former bathroom in order to make a slightly larger pantry off the kitchen (because lord knows we’ll need the space since we won’t have any kitchen cabinets!).

fingers crossed we can actually get these to the city for permitting soon…


CAD new floor plan


the rothschild property.

so our barrio house sat on the market, vacant, for almost nine years before we bought it. yes, that’s NINE YEARS, a crazy long time for any house to go unsold. during that time, people started referring to it as “the Rothschild property.”

it had been bought in 2005 by Mesch, Clark & Rothschild, a tucson law firm that hoped it would be a good investment. they worked with at least one architect on a plan to turn it into several residences, but couldn’t make the numbers work. shortly thereafter, as you may recall, the real estate market crashed. they decided to wait for the market to come back. they waited and they waited and they waited. in the meantime, the house sat, sad and empty and crumbling. the only person who lived there during that time was a homeless guy the firm’s caretaker allowed to take up residence as a deterrent to curious school kids and other vandals. the guy, the caretaker said, had been thrilled with the running hot water (there’s a solar water heater in the backyard), and the wood stove in the kitchen.

barrio neighbors accused the owners  of “demolition by neglect,” and many still believe the law firm would have preferred to simply raze the structure and sell off the parcels (land in barrio viejo is becoming more and more valuable), but were hampered by the historic status of the house (it’s listed on the national register) as well as the election of jonathan rothschild as mayor of tucson. he’s a lawyer who was once with the firm; his father, lowell, is a partner (hence the firm’s name). certainly it’s hard to argue with the notion that tearing down one of the barrio’s last, iconic places wouldn’t exactly have reflected well on the mayor. the rothschild’s, for their part, have always maintained they had no plans to level the building.

this article from the Arizona Daily Star, and this one from Tucson Weekly, both spotlighted the house’s continuing decline.

whatever the true intentions of the previous owner’s may have been (and as i don’t know them at all, i can’t really speculate), by my calculations they lost about 100K on the place. that includes nine years of taxes, repairs (they did do a few, here and there, even if they were fairly half-hearted), and other miscellaneous expenses, as well as what they lost on the purchase price by finally agreeing to sell it at a loss.

so that’s the last nine years of the house’s history. more to come soon on the 100+ that preceded them.


i am a believer in signs. i admit it’s an indefensible belief, admit that if i’m being completely rational, i’d have to agree that most things we think of as “signs” could simply be coincidence. even so, i believe. if i have a tough decision to make, i look to the Universe for a clue. maybe it’s silly, but it often seems that if something is meant to work out, it usually does so with a degree of ease–and plenty of signs.  and when i ignore this–when i fight against whatever the energy of what a particular situation is telling me, when there are no signs, i’m usually sorry. so i watch for the signs, irrational or not.

it soon became clear that if we were actually going to buy the barrio house, we were going to need a hell of a lot of signs.

because as charmed as we’d been by our first glimpse of the courtyard, the rest of the house was a mess. the rooms were filled with various odds and ends–including a couch in the kitchen which had a huge, reddish stain that we really didn’t care to investigate too closely–a somewhat decrepit stove (in the living room), numerous, mis-matched old doors and, in one room, so many old ceiling (?) boards that we couldn’t get in to take a look. and then of course there was the lack of services–no electrical and vitally no plumbing, either–and the walls, one of which, off the zaguan had essentially melted into a huge mound of dirt on the floor–you had to step over it to get from one side of the house to the other.  all of this stood under a sheet metal roof that appeared to have just been thrown over the top. we’d done enough remodeling in the past to have an inkling of what we were looking at: the mother of all renovation projects.

the kitchen, with blood(?)-stained couch.

the kitchen, with blood(?)-stained couch.

still–like the yard–the house had charm. even filthy and filled with debris, there was something there. the great american architect louis kahn spoke of how buildings have both the measurable–the size of the doors, for instance–and the immeasurable.  the immeasurable is the essence of a structure:  the thing you often can’t put into words.

and the house, well, the house had the immeasurable.

there remained, however, the ridiculous price to contend with. while it had gone down considerably since i’d first looked it up (even i’m not that crazy), it was evident that when it came to dollars the owners were rather stubborn. by the time we looked at it, the house had been on the market for nearly nine years.

“they’re waiting for a sucker” our real estate agent, susan denis, said. “i mean, i don’t mean you’re a sucker” she backpedaled hastily. but it was true–i was a sucker. chris and i were both suckers for even contemplating making an offer.

though of course we offered anyway–not anywhere near list price, but not low-ball either. and then we had word there was another offer, from people who’d looked at the house just the morning before.

i was immediately on the phone with susan, in a panic. she, i could tell, was nearly in a panic herself on our behalf. we discussed a radical move–writing in an escalation clause that said we would beat any other offer. after some discussion, though, we dismissed the idea. chris and i were good buyers, she pointed out, and we’d made a decent offer.  we should let it stand.

it all made sense. and it was killing me. i sat by the phone, waiting for word from susan on what was going on. the sellers had a meeting scheduled for five o’clock to discuss the two offers.  five came and went and still no word. susan kept emailing me with updates: they’d been delayed, they’d just gone in, they were talking now. while i waited i did what any believer in signs would do: i consulted my magic-8 ball. “it says ‘outlook good’ i wrote to susan.  she replied “you have a magic-8 ball. okay, i’m going to go pull a tarot card.”  a few minutes later she sent me the result:  it was gaia, the earth goddess.

not long afterwards she was calling to tell me we had an accepted offer. we had an accepted offer!

but now came the hard part: trying to decide if we should go through with it. because even though we had an accepted offer, we still had to decide if we could actually afford the renovation. we asked for–and got–a month-long inspection period. then we began trooping in architects and contractors.

the figures we got back were, in a word, alarming. in the past, we’d bought houses in price ranges well below what we could have afforded. this, it soon became clear, wasn’t going to be that. while it looked like we might be able to swing the necessary work, it was also clear that doing so was going to strain us financially in ways no other house had before.

we pow-wowed with our financial advisor. although he didn’t think we’d be completely damaging our monetary future, his projections–like all such projections–were filled with “ifs”. it wasn’t exactly reassuring.

and so: signs. the thing is: i’ve never seen so many signs all in one place. they seemed to be everywhere in the house. there were, for example, the 13s. thirteen is my lucky number (i’m reclaiming it from the demons), and a vast majority of the thirteen rooms of the main part of the house are 13×13 (add to this the fact that chris was born on the 13th of january). then there was the fact that when we investigated a table in the room i’d already decided would be my office, we discovered it was an old, architectural drafting table–i am currently studying architecture. then there were the house numbers–over the years, the house has actually had a bunch of numbers associated with it, but the main ones seemed to be 560 and 576.  add the six and seven in the the second number together and you get, yes, another thirteen (okay, if you add them all you get eighteen, but indulge me, okay?). add all the numbers of the first number together and you get eleven–which is my birthdate.

maybe the weirdest of all, though, was a small ceramic wall hanging i managed to overlook for weeks until one day i noticed it on the wall of the kitchen: it depicted an archer over the word “sagittarius,” which is, you guessed it, my astrological sign.



i can’t say such things were the only factor i weighed (chris thinks it’s all bunk, so he didn’t weigh any of them), but certainly they didn’t hurt.  if you’re going to do something completely irrational, why not base it on irrationality?

so we bought the house. our closing date was march 20th, a date the sellers had chosen, not me. it was the equinox, the first day of spring.

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