house made of mud

rescuing a sonoran row house

Month: November 2014

the free barrio

barrio el hoyo, barrio ochoa, barrio hollywood, barrio santa rosa. and my favorite: the lost barrio (because that one, a few miles east of the others, got “lost” apparently).

barrios stud the map of tucson’s historic center. if you’re not from here, however, you might be wondering just what the heck a “barrio” is anyway, or even if you know, if it’s a word that you can use in polite conversation. (before we moved here i mentioned ‘the barrios’ to chris one day–i had attended the U of A some years earlier, so i knew tucson a little–and he said ‘i’m not sure you should say that.’ i think he thought it was the spanish equivalent of saying someone lived in ‘the hood’!)

all of which is to say (in case you’re still in doubt) that ‘barrio’ simply means ‘neighborhood’. and our barrio, barrio viejo, is one of the oldest in tucson.

though in the beginning it wasn’t the ‘old’ neighborhood, of course. back in the mid-1800s it went by the name of ‘barrio libre’ because of all of the naughty stuff that went on there. a tucson city directory from 1881 explains:

‘it means Free Zone, and in earlier times was allowed to remain without legal restraints or the presence of a policeman. here, the mescalian could imbibe his fill, and either male or female could, in peaceful intoxication, sleep on the sidewalk or in the middle of the streets, with all their ancient rights respected. fandangoes, monte, chicken fights, broils, and all the amusements of the lower class of mexicans were, in this quarter, indulged in without restraint; and to this day much of the old-time regime prevails, although the encroachments of the american element indicate the ultimate doom of the customs in the barrio libre.’

while i’m not sure what ‘ancient rights’ may have been due to drunk people sleeping it off in the middle of the streets, the description rocks. besides the licentiousness, there was also carrillo gardens–an eight-acre park on the west side of the barrio founded in the 1870s. the park was planted in peach, pomegranate and apricot trees, and had a huge rose garden. there were also three spring fed-ponds on which visitors could take boat rides, twelve bath houses, a saloon, shooting gallery, restaurant, dance hall, zoo and circus, according to La Pilita museum. even more refined was the teatro carmen a couple streets over from the gardens. begun by one carmen soto de vásquez, it opened its doors in 1915. it was designed by architect manuel flores in sonoran-mission style, seated 1,400 and in its heyday there were literary events, operas, musicals and plays, all in spanish. though the park (which was eventually renamed elysian grove) disappeared after its popularity waned in the 1950s, and the theatre is long defunct, you can at least still see the old teatro carmen doorway on meyer avenue.


photo by os ismael.

the fate of both park and theatre proves that city directory authors were, not surprisingly, right about the ultimate doom of the barrio’s more colorful aspects. even more tragic than this demise, however, was the end a large portion the barrio itself. in the late 1960s about half of the district was bulldozed in the name of ‘urban renewal,’ and the tucson convention center–surrounded by giant, concrete parking lot islands–was put in its place. it goes almost without saying that the city elders responsible for the tearing down were anglo, while the barrio residents who were displaced–many from homes their families had occupied for generations–were not.

there is one barrio place, though, that does persist today: el tiradito, or the ‘wishing shrine.’ sited near a dried-up spring that was once the water source for the entire barrio, the exact details of how the wishing shrine came to be depend on the source consulted, though all agree it’s a tale of tragic lovers. (this version from the tucson museum  has to win hands down for bloodiest–axe murdering, anyone?) at any rate: what you’re supposed to do is make a wish at the shrine while lighting a candle. if it’s still lit the next morning, your wish will be granted. i’ve been thinking i should go over there and wish for good fortune on our barrio house restoration (god know we’re going to need it), though i’m too worried the candle would blow out to try!


el tiradito.


‘nother quick update

this is just to say: our plans passed the Barrio Viejo neighborhood committee review! they’re known to be tough, so it’s a major relief to have them on board. we still have one more historic review to go–by the Pima County Historical Commission–which will,  interestingly enough, take place on december 11th–my birthday (somehow i just knew we weren’t going to get through this process without something happening on my birthday).

it’s a few weeks away, but fingers crossed all the same…


“you’re going to live in a…mud…house?” someone who had seen this blog said to me recently. it was clear she seemed to find the idea a little, well, eccentric.

and equally clear that like many people, she didn’t realize that adobe bricks are, in fact, made of mud. that’s correct, folks: if you live in an adobe structure, you, too, are living in a house of dirt.

‘course, these days most adobe houses are made of what’s known as “stabilized adobe” which means that something has been added to the mix–usually portland cement, though sometimes asphalt–to make the adobe less prone to washing away.

as it happens, last spring when we first began looking at our barrio house, i was taking a materials & methods class. each class member chose a building material to explore in more depth, with options ranging from metal to wood to concrete and to, yes, earth. i’m sure you can guess which one i picked.

so, as chris and i were debating whether or not we were going to take our real estate plunge, i was simultaneously up to my elbows in mud pies in our garage. rather than playing with adobe bricks, however, i decided to explore rammed earth (check out the tucson mountain retreat house by DUST and its gorgeous rammed earth walls and you’ll see why). my process involved collecting samples of dirt from across the tucson basin, mixing them with varying percentages of portland cement, and then pounding them into metal molds i’d thrown together in the shop on campus with the spot welder. once i had them out of the molds i tested them for weather resistance by dousing them with water (the portland cement makes them amazingly durable).

garage workshop.

garage workshop.

hammering the dirt.

hammering the dirt.

fresh from the molds.

fresh from the molds.

drying in the sun.

drying in the sun.

traditional adobes, however, don’t contain any cement. they’re made of dirt (ideally with a heavy clay content), water and usually straw to create a sort of sticky slurry that (today, at least) gets thrown in a mixer, then into wooden molds corresponding to whatever size and shape you want your adobe bricks to be. earlier this year i did a workshop out at canoa ranch, south of tucson, where we made adobes. basically, once the mud mix came out of the mixer, we simply took up huge handfuls of it and slapped them down into molds (this made, it must be said, a really satisfying splat) which had been sprayed with water inside to prevent sticking. the trick after that was to get the bricks out without creating hairline cracks, which could potentially cause the dried bricks to fail. finally, they got set out to cure in the sun.

they’re going to–and have–used the exact same process to make adobes at our barrio house. though we haven’t been able to do much yet in terms of construction (there have been so many code violations at the house in the past that the city wouldn’t even allow us to turn on temporary power without official building permits in place) over the summer a crew did get started on making some of the many, many mud bricks we’re going to need for repairs. while they were there, our friend susan denis snapped some pics.

the crew.

the crew with mixer in back.


straining out rocks.

finished bricks drying in our yard.

finished bricks drying in our yard.

and some more.

more bricks.

as you can imagine, the process of making adobes is rather labor intensive (and these guys were doing it in july in tucson!). which, yes, makes it rather expensive–at least in the u.s. traditionally speaking, though, building with mud was cheap (and it still is if you have the time and people to do it). to build our house, the original inhabitants simply dug a big hole–no need to buy materials–and used the dirt on site to make their walls. this is the reason we have a big cellar under what will be our living room: it’s the crater from which the house was born.

quick update

just have to say this:  the plans are FINALLY at the city!

now it’s just a short (ha) four to six weeks of permitting and historic reviews (there are not one, but two of them to pass) and then we will be on our way to actual construction. i’ll keep you all posted.

yay! YAY!

the house that juan pascale built

i admittedly do not yet have the full story on all of the people who’ve occupied our barrio house throughout its history. but here are a few things i can tell you.

the house was built by a man named juan pascale, who was reputedly an italian carpenter.  it’s unclear when exactly he might have built (or begun) the structure, but it was likely sometime after 1880.  we know this because one of the interior walls on the zaguan is fired brick (it’s the only wall in the house that isn’t adobe), and bricks first appeared in tucson with the advent of the railroads in 1880. it’s a little surprising, i know, that the original occupants were italian and not mexican–tucson was part of mexico until the gadsen purchase in the mid 1800s, and many mexican americans lived in tucson’s various barrios–but barrio viejo actually housed all sorts of people. which brings me to what i think is one of the most interesting aspects of our property–the chinese grocery that used to sit on its northwest corner. i don’t yet know much about it other than that it was called lee wah and co. and that the grocery is no doubt the reason we have a jujube tree in the back. the father-daughter architect team drawing our plans, as it happens, are chinese american, and told us that “everywhere the chinese were in tucson, they planted jujube trees.”

but back to juan pascale. juan, it seems, was something of an entrepreneur–we’ve been told that not only did he own our place, with it’s series of row houses for rent, but that he owned half the block and all of the other row houses on it. i need to get back down to the historical society to do more research on him and his family, but he apparently lived in the house until his death in 1936.

as yet i’ve been unable to find any historical photographs of the front facade of our house (the closest one i’ve seen shows convent avenue in the late 19th/early 20th century with what might be the house in the far distance–the “lee wah” sign is just discernible– though i can’t publish it here because the historical society made me sign something in blood saying that i wouldn’t put their photos on the internet). to give an idea, however, of what what was then called barrio libre looked like during juan’s lifetime, here are some other images readily available online. the first two likely date to before the turn of the last century, while the third is meyer street (one street over from convent) circa 1905.

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after juan passed away, his family lived on in the house for another decade (the title passes into the name of an antonia pascale–his wife?–and a john pascale–his son?). then, in the late 1940s, it passes to a couple named stanley and floy thayer. all i know about them thus far is their names. did they live in the house? i like to think they did–they owned it for the next 20 some years, until selling it in 1972 to the s.b. double-j investment company, located in toledo, ohio. (note: the double-j appears to have bought not only our house, but the entire complex of pascale buildings–three of them–that were on the half block, though or obvious reasons i am largely concerned with our portion here.)

this is the point in which the house’s history turns sad. the double-j investment company wanted to tear the place down, but was hampered by its historic status. and so the house began to wait. while it waited, it looked like this–the following photographs were taken in the 1970s as part of a survey of historic american buildings conducted by the federal government.

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some city officials weren’t exactly what you would call supportive during this era. one man in particular, james r. singleton, of the building safety division, tried very hard to get the entire house demolished. ‘since april of 1981,’ he wrote in one memo, ‘pascale adobe has deteriorated much in the manner cancer affects man,’ and further warned that pieces the corrugated metal roof were loose and that ‘the sharp-edged metal could decapitate a small child or passerby.’

small wonder then, that when the east wall of the grocery–which is the area on the corner pictured above with the awing (or toldo–one of the salient features of historic barrio buildings)–collapsed in august of 1982 after a heavy monsoon rain, the building safety division took the opportunity to bulldoze the remaining two walls of the former grocery into the cellar beneath it.

the following two photos from the 1980s show the destruction best.IMG_3167IMG_3168

a couple of years later the building safety division gave the double-j company an ultimatum: they were to either repair the structure or demolish it. they chose the latter, and the demolition order was issued.

the order was stayed when the city council moved to work with the national trust for public lands to raise funds to purchase the house from the double-j with the intent to  save the structure and come up with a restoration plan. the pascale adobe, it seemed, was saved.

what followed, however, was not quite the salvation one could hope for. though about 30,000 was spent on stabilization, the tucson barrio association that was supposed to be directing the restoration didn’t seem to be able to muster either the organization or funds to follow through. there were charges that the association misused some of the funds it had been given, and there was squabbling about who would do the work. the city cut off the funds, and the building languished some more.

next was a would-be savior named sally adolph who bought the entire complex from the trust for public lands in 1986. adolph, an ‘underwater photographer, author and nutritionist,’ had grand plans, according to a daily star article. she declared she would spend one million dollars turning the pascale adobes into offices and building a mix of new apartments and town houses. a restaurant was also in the works.

whatever came of the whole thing i have no idea, but clearly adolph did not make good. from her the house passed into the hands of a woman named marta, i believe, who kept a bunch of goats, who must have wandered about in the midst the sanford and sons style junk yard she reportedly turned the courtyard into. after her, a man named warren michaels purchased both our house and the pascale adobe adjacent to the west. micheals restored that property, though one such project was apparently enough for him. he subsequently sold the property to the rothschilds.

and then, of course, we bought it.

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