Downtown’s History a Draw for Residents and Visitors

April 22, 2014

Actors at the Presidio San Agustín del Tucson, a re-creation of the northeast corner of the original 1775 Spanish presidio or fort.

Actors at the Presidio San Agustín del Tucson, a re-creation of the northeast corner of the original 1775 Spanish presidio or fort.

By Christy Krueger

Tucson has over 4,000 years of history, making this one of the longest continually-occupied parts of the country, filled with colorful and intriguing people, places and events. It gives us pride in our city and appreciation for those who came before us. And it happens to be a significant economic driver, especially Downtown where it all began.

People seek out historical knowledge because “it brings meaning to something besides the beautiful buildings,” said Jane Stansbury, owner and operator of Sentinel Carriage Company. Her narrated, horse-drawn carriage tours through Downtown’s historic districts are filled with anecdotes, facts and vivid descriptions of the area’s territorial days. Her customers’ favorite sites include the 1902 Owls Club mansion, a former bachelor house; and the Franklin House, which has been in the same family since 1898. “It feels good to recognize the people who put these buildings and neighborhoods here. We see them as living things,” Stansbury noted.

According to Todd Hanley, general manager of Hotel Congress, history plays a large role in attracting guests to the property. “It’s absolutely a main draw. It’s one of four categories – the historic nature of the building, the rooms, the rock and roll component and the overall scene. And some say they stay here for the ghosts.” Opened in 1919, Hotel Congress is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Images of Hotel Congress graced postcards.

Images of Hotel Congress graced postcards.

A number of other Downtown buildings and homes in El Presidio, Armory Park, central Downtown and Barrio Viejo have been preserved to maintain their territorial integrity. El Presidio neighborhood began as a Spanish outpost and includes Tucson Museum of Art and the nearby J. Knox Corbett House; Presidio San Agustín del Tucson, a re-creation of the northeast corner of the original 1775 Spanish fort; Old Town Artisans shops; restaurants and bed and breakfast inns.

La Casita del Sol, 407 North Meyer Avenue, is a vacation rental owned by Dan Overbeck and Mark Flamini who live in the row house next door. The preserved rental unit helped the area gain its historic designation. “It was one of the contributing structures to the neighborhood being on the national historic register,” said Overbeck. Since rooms in El Presidio were often rented out during early territorial times, La Casita del Sol is traditional to the neighborhood.

A home in the historic El Presidio neighborhood.

A home in the historic El Presidio neighborhood.

“People mostly didn’t have the funds to own then. Folks on Main and Granada were Anglos and were business owners and politicians. On Meyer they tended to be more blue collar – blacksmiths, bank clerks, bartenders,” Overbeck explained.

Stansbury said the proximity to the railroad made it a transient area. “Meyer had lots of boarding houses because the train stopped between Meyer and Court. It was a classic place for boarding houses and brothels, and renting a room out was a good way to make money.”

Today, La Casita del Sol guests enjoy the location’s convenience to tourist attractions, the easy walk to Downtown amenities, street parking and minimal traffic.

Flamini and Overbeck wholeheartedly celebrate their historic property’s past. Arizona State Museum provided them with names of all families who lived in the adobe row house that is now La Casita del Sol, going back to the 1880s when it was built. Photographs and newspaper clippings illustrating the home’s beginnings hang in the kitchen and bedroom, giving guests a peek back in time.

Sentinel Carriage Company in the El Presidio Neighborhood.

Sentinel Carriage Company in the El Presidio Neighborhood.

Both Stansbury and Overbeck recognize the role historic districts have in Downtown’s success, saying they add a dimension to the city’s offerings. “Some people want to experience the real Old Pueblo, so I think our little part of Downtown gives that,” Overbeck noted. His guests stay with him for the historic charm and they head to Congress Street to enjoy the restaurants and entertainment.

Sentinel Carriage Company, which began offering historic tours in 2012, is bringing people Downtown who may not otherwise come, including snowbirds and Green Valley residents. “They’re looking for something to do Downtown, but they don’t know how to dive in. It can be intimidating,” Stansbury said. She provides an outlet for the uninitiated through her tours and then gives them suggestions for other downtown stops.

In return for their promotion of Downtown businesses, Stansbury and Overbeck do see some reciprocation, including with each other. Stansbury has also formed business relationships with the owners of the beautiful Franklin House wedding venue, Royal Elizabeth B&B Inn, and La Cocina. Like Overbeck, she sends folks to area eateries, such as El Charro Café, Hotel Congress, HUB Restaurant and Maynards Market & Kitchen.

An actor portrays Dillinger making his getaway during Dillinger Days.

An actor portrays Dillinger making his getaway during Dillinger Days.

Historic events pull thousands of people Downtown – again, many who wouldn’t otherwise visit. Todd Hanley of Hotel Congress estimated 5,000 to 7,000 people attend Dillinger Days each year. The event, held in and around the hotel, celebrates the capture of John Dillinger and his gang on January 22, 1934.

“It put Tucson and Hotel Congress on the map,” Hanley stated. “It was historically impactful in the 1930s and again in the 1990s and 2000s and is one of the main reasons for the success of Hotel Congress and Downtown.” The 2014 version of Dillinger Days engaged additional Downtown businesses, including Hydra, Chicago Music Store, and Buffalo Exchange, all of which dressed up their storefronts with retro window displays and coordinated activities in the spirit of the event.

Other historic experiences that bring history lovers Downtown include Living History Days at Presidio San Agustín del Tucson, Locomotive Saturdays and the annual Silver Spike Festival at Tucson Historic Depot, Tucson’s Birthday Flag-Raising Ceremony and Armory Park Historic District Walking Tours.

The historic train depot is a major draw for history buffs, or just people looking to enjoy the view over a glass of wine.

The historic train depot is a major draw for history buffs, or just people looking to enjoy the view over a glass of wine.

Being connected to one of Tucson’s most popular historic landmarks and a cornerstone of dining and entertainment, Hanley has a keen sense of Downtown’s transforming nature. “The culture and history of Tucson sometimes slow down progress, but when change occurs here, it sticks. Neighbors often protest it because they want to maintain the character and fabric of Tucson. This is better than in bigger cities where change happens too fast and not enough thought goes into it.”

Hanley clearly understands the relationship between historic attractions and economic growth. But he believes that in the case of Downtown Tucson it goes a step further. “It’s about coming to an area that’s vibrant and energetic. There are historically renovated buildings that people prefer to look at over new buildings. Hotel Congress has been an anchor and landmark for all things Downtown. Since I started here in 2004, this has been the real destination to experience culture, art and history. This property is rooted in it.”

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInPin on Pinterest