Facade Miracles in the Works for Chicago Store, City High School

June 7, 2012

By Teya Vitu

You will definitely notice the façade improvements coming to the 1903 brick Italianate-style structure that has housed the Chicago Store since 1967 but has had a rag-tag appearance for years.

Soon you will forget the aged red look at Chicago Store.

The upper half of the building, with the boarded up windows, will get a coat of yellowish paint – and glass will replace the plywood. A brownish paint with black accents will cover the bottom.

The yellow and black are based on the colors in the tile column at the Congress/6th Avenue corner of the store.

“The color makes a huge change,” said Tatyana Bresler, a partner at Tucson-based Eglin+Bresler Architects, the firm designing the façade improvements. “You can repaint it and not recognize the building.”

The yellow-and-brown will replace the red that came to represent the façade’s slow decline, punctuated with the boarded up windows, some of the decorated with murals. The Chicago Store’s façade decline matched Downtown’s own doldrums in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s, when the store was owned by its original owners, Joe and Phil Levkowitz.

“Through the 1990s, there was a certain element to have these (murals),” said David Fregonese, Chicago Store’s chief executive. “Now, after Joe and Phil (they died in 2004), we are modernizing the business and the building.”

Glass will replace plywood in the 13 upper level transom windows on the Congress side and 18 windows on the 6th Avenue side.

“They will change the look dramatically,” Bresler said. “We’re trying to be extremely sensitive. This is only preservation and restoration. The direct work is rehabilitation.”

Yellow and brown will become the prominent colors at Chicago Store. Image courtesty of Eglin+Bresler Architects.

Chicago Store, 130 East Congress Street, is one of two historic buildings that will be spiffed up this year with grants from the Downtown Tucson Partnership’s Façade Improvement Program.

Chicago store was awarded $90,000, and City High School, 48 East Pennington Street, was awarded $35,000 for façade work on the 1941 Howard & Stofft Stationers/Shoe City  building, 37 East Pennington Street, across the alley from the charter high school. Both entities must match the full amount of the façade program grant.

The 1-to-1 financial matches have really amounted to 3-to-1 investments from façade program participants, DTP Chief Executive Michael Keith is fond of saying.

Carrie Brennan, City High’s executive director, likes to describe the neighboring Shoe City building as invisible on Pennington Street, a vacant building you can walk by every day and not even realize it’s there.

The Cele Peterson Family owns both the City High and Shoe City buildings, and Brennan collaborated with the family for this façade improvement project that is intended to allow the grade 9 to 12 school to add a middle school down to sixth grade in 2014.

“The immediate use for the store front will be for student project displays,” Brennan said.

The "invisible" Shoe City building (left) and City High School (right).


The building has two large faceted display windows flanking a smaller, central display case. Architect Blake Goble of Tucson-base G&F Architects will paint the building a dark gray, repair the windows and restore the display case and the tile wall at the base.

City High School will be spelled out with laser cut steel plate letters on the parapet that will be silhouetted at night with LED back-lighting. The letters will resemble the look of the original Howard and Stofft lettering from 1941.

City High has used the building for storage for a few years. The use matched the building’s nondescript look. Now, with the façade improvement this year, the building’s use will be upgraded to an event space and classroom space to once again match the restored 1940s modernist look.

“We’ve been waiting for an opportunity for years,” said Brennan, one of the founders of City High, which opened on Pennington in 2003. “We just made the decision in the last 18 months to stay on Pennington for the next 10-15 years.”

Chicago Store and City High are the third-round entries for the Façade Improvement Program, which was launched in 2008 and has improved seven historic Downtown facades for about $368,000 in Façade Improvement grants funded with a combination of city and private funds.

The new City High look (right) will take on the original 1941 look (left). Image courtesy of G&F Architects.

The third round is funded with $90,000 from the Tohono O’odham Nation, $80,000 of city funding remaining from the first round in 2008, $15,000 remaining from the second round, and a new $60,000 infusion from Providence Service Corp. and other private sector donors.

Initially, nobody had an inkling what these façade improvements would trigger other than replacing ghastly mid-20th century building facades with original early 20th century looks.

Above all, the Façade Improvement Program directly led Fletcher McCusker to move his Providence Service Corp. headquarters Downtown.

The owners of the Rialto Building went into the Façade Improvement Program in 2009 with vague ideas to fill the building with a restaurant or lounge. Instead, co-owner Don Martin unexpectedly found himself in the exhibition business and has staged “Bodies…The Exhibition,” followed by “Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition,” “Tutankhamun: Wonderful Things from the Pharoah’s Tomb” and the current“Mars and Beyond” exhibition.

Once The Screening Room marquee was turned on in fall 2009, the theater instantly became a favored Club Crawl venue and many events and parties now seek to use the theater.

Façade grants have especially targeted 6th Avenue between Pennington and Broadway with the bold color mix at Imago Dei Middle School, the marquee for Beowulf Alley Theatre, and The Drawing Studio replaced barred windows with a more pleasing accordion pleated perforated steel mesh.

Chicago Store will be the signature façade project to tie all these 6th Avenue improvement together.