County Aims to Put Museums in Historic Courthouse

April 10, 2015

When bids came in low to build the a new Pima County courthouse in 1928, the Board of Supervisors used the extra money to order tile for the 100-foot-tall dome.

When bids came in low to build the a new courthouse in 1928, the Board of Supervisors used the extra money to order tile for the 100-foot-tall dome.

by Brad Poole

When the new Pima County Consolidated Justice Court building opened Downtown in February, the county was left with some decisions to make.

As several county departments shift to newer digs, the historic courthouse, the blue-domed building across Church Street from the Joel D. Valdez Library, will be left empty, and the search is on for new tenants.

“The intent right now is to convert the entire court house into museum space,” said Gary Campbell, the architectural manager for the Pima County Facilities Management Department.

The January 8 Foundation has laid claim to a fraction of the space in the old building. That museum will take up somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 square feet of the ground floor.

It will include a memorial and museum honoring the victims of the shooting in 2011, when a gunman shot 18 people, killing six and gravely injuring former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Tucson.

That memorial, which will be built next year, is part of a wider redesign of Presdio Plaza, the city park behind the courthouse. Four finalists recently unveiled their proposals for the memorial and museum, and the foundation will choose one in coming months.

Cross your fingers, because that plan will likely include a snack bar, and that might make it possible to relax with a cup of coffee in the courtyard at the historic building, Campbell said.

The historic Pima County courthouse will soon be empty, save some items the county stores there. Plans call for turning most, if not all, of the space into museums.

The historic Pima County courthouse will soon be empty, save some items the county stores there. Plans call for turning most, if not all, of the space into museums.

The county is also in discussions with University of Arizona and the Tucson Museum of Art to house exhibits in the former courthouse, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, Campbell said.

When the old courthouse was finished in 1929, it housed not only courts, but the sheriff, his deputies’ dormitory, the jail and a multistory steel stack system, similar to a library, for storing records.

The Spanish Colonial Revival building was designed by Roy Place, a local architect who also designed the Cochise County courthouse and 25 buildings at University of Arizona. It is widely recognized as Arizona’s finest example of the style.

The 32-foot-wide tile-clad dome towers 100 feet at the tip of the cupola, which includes a copper lantern. Several other copper light fixtures hang from the open-air hallways running around the ground floor courtyard.

Hand-drawn plans for the courthouse include a deputies' dormitory and a fingerprint room, which was fairly new technology in criminal investigations.

Hand-drawn plans for the courthouse include a deputies’ dormitory and a fingerprint room, which was fairly new technology in criminal investigations.

The building – which cost roughly $300,000 and was paid for with county bonds – replaced an older courthouse, which was demolished after the “new” one was finished in December 1929. Since then, it has housed a variety of county offices.

The Pima County Justice Court moved out in February, and the 88,000-square-foot building is still home to the county treasurer, recorder and assessor, but not for long.

“All three of those entities will be moving out over the summer and early fall,” Campbell said.

Regardless of who moves into the building, it will look pretty much the way it does now. There are no plans for renovations, other than updating the interior space to accommodate new tenants.

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