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  • Writer's pictureBob Graham

La Placita Village - Tucson

Updated: Apr 4, 2022

El Charro (El Charro Collection)

Developmental History

Overview: the Barrio Libre to Urban Renewal

The Barrio Libre or “Free Neighborhood” encompasses some of the oldest areas of Tucson. The Barrio generally lay in the area east of Main Street south of Broadway and was the home of much of Tucson’s Spanish-speaking community. The Plaza de la Mesilla, also known as Church Square, was defined before 1862 and was a focal point of the community. The San Augustin church that bordered the eastern side of the plaza was built in 1863-68.

In territorial times, the neighborhood was home to many of Tucson’s leading citizens. It survived over 100 years of history while still retaining an urban form and architectural character that reflected its cultural roots.

1886 Sanborn fire insurance map of a portion of Tucson, including the northern part of the Barrio Libre

Starting around 1965, the national urban renewal movement hit Tucson with proposals to redevelop parts of the downtown with a master-planned core of government buildings. In part, the project was intended to clean up the old Barrio by clearing an area thought of by some as a slum, and replacing it with a convention center, hotel, and a festival marketplace, which was to become the “La Placita Village” project.

Tucson’s first survey of its historic building stock (1969) canvassed the old Barrio Libre (among other areas) in an effort to identify important historic resources in advance of redevelopment. The survey resulted in survey subjects being placed into one of three categories: “Buildings to be Preserved at All Costs,” “Buildings to be Preserved if Possible,” and “Buildings For Which Only Photographs Are Available.” The Samaniego House at 112-140 W. Jackson St. was among those important to be preserved. The survey surveyed the El Charro Restaurant at 140 West Broadway and placed it into the last category, unworthy of preservation but to be documented. Numerous other area buildings were surveyed; while a few in the area survived, over a dozen were demolished to make way for redevelopment. In all, 263 old buildings on 29 blocks of the Barrio were demolished.

Nearly all of the land in the path of redevelopment was cleared. Among the survivors were the El Charro building (which should have the proper historic name of Cano Drug Store / Hop Lee Laundry) and the Samaniego House, for a time as islands surrounded by significant earthworks. The redevelopment took place for the most part between 1970 and 1974. Both of these buildings were incorporated, in altered form, into La Placita Village.

Tucson Civic Center c.1970 (Fred Wehrman)

Hop Lee Laundry / Cano Drug Store

The Cano Drug Store was constructed in 1929-30 as a major remodel of the earlier Hop Lee laundry to house the M. R. Cano Drug Store as well as the residence of the Miguel and Frances Cano family. The two-story brick building was designed in a commercial adaptation of the Monterey style. The building incorporated substantial portions of the earlier Hop Lee Laundry, constructed of adobe prior to 1881, and contiguous adobe dwelling units extending around the back of the parcel, which had been constructed by 1896. The adobe portion of the building, while acquiring a new brick street façade, was leased to various tenants. The El Charro restaurant became a tenant in 1935; by 1947 El Charro had expanded to take up the entire building, occupying it until the neighborhood was redeveloped in the late 1960s. The building was remodeled as leased commercial retail and office space in 1973 as a part of the La Placita Village development.

Construction and Hop Lee Laundry Period, 1862-1929

The building began life as a Sonoran adobe row house with rooms aligned along the southern edge of the Plaza de la Mesilla, also known as Church Square. The earliest Sanborn map (1883) shows a building of six adobe rooms with wooden porches across the back, with the western rooms used as a dwelling. On the rear of the lot, detached from the main building, was a long “horse shed” and a small building of unknown use (likely tack storage). By 1886 much of the shed was removed and two new adobe rooms were built, probably for tack and carriage storage. Because the front building was unlikely to have been purpose-built as a laundry, it likely predates 1881; the Plaza existed prior to 1862, so perhaps the original construction date can be estimated at about 1862-70. The 1881 directory lists the only uses of the property as the “Lee Hop laundry” (18 Camp St.) and the dwelling, at 16 Camp Street, as the residence of Howard Mercer.

Establishing the biography of Hop Lee, laundryman, is complicated by the fact that there appear to have been two or three different Hop Lees in Tucson over the years, as well as a Lee Hop. Because the laundry appears in city directories as early as 1881, it is likely that Hop Lee arrived with the development of the Southern Pacific railroad, which was completed in 1881. Assuming he would have been a young man in his twenties, he would have been born c. 1860. That would have made him about 66 years old when the laundry went out of business in 1926. A later Hop Lee immigrated in 1912 and became a prominent merchant with his grocery business in Tucson. This younger Hop Lee does not appear to be associated with the property.

Given the longevity of the Hop Lee laundry and continued use of the property by the Chinese community in Tucson for years after the laundry closed, it appears likely that he owned the property to run his laundry business while renting commercial space at the street front and dwellings behind. Title research would be necessary to reach firm conclusions about ownership and management of the property and how that may have changed over the years.

"Chinese" residences behind the commercial block

By 1896, the dwelling at the west end of the building block had been demolished and new one-story adobe commercial space was constructed in its place. A wooden porch was constructed across the street front, uniting all four sections of the building. These four sections were used for the Chinese laundry, a cobbler, and restaurants. The 1897 city directory identifies the businesses as the Hop Lee laundry, the Los Angeles Restaurant (Lien You Song, proprietor) and the Heng Lee restaurant. (Presumably, the cobbler business belonged to Hop Lee.) By this time, the horse stables had been completely removed or rehabilitated as dwellings, marked “Chinese” on the Sanborn map. The back building had also been extended north along the east property line to form an “L,” nearly joining with the primary building. By 1909 the buildings were indeed joined, forming a single adobe building surrounding a central courtyard on three sides. With only minor alterations, the building remained in this form until 1929.

During the period after 1900, the commercial space hosted a number of restaurant tenants in addition to Hop Lee’s continuing laundry business and residence. Around 1900 the addressing was changed to identify the four segments of the building as (from east to west) numbers 134, 136, 140, and 144. Camp Street was renamed to Broadway in 1902. The Hop Lee laundry continued to operate at 136 W. Broadway through 1926. After it closed, the location became the Gee Hing grocery until the Depression, followed by Faustino Hendez barber shop. Other businesses occupying space in the building during this period included the Delmonico Restaurant (Jim Lee Co., proprietor, 136-144), the Union Restaurant (Jose Montoya, proprietor, 144), Mrs. Maria Flores restaurant (144), Mrs. Dolores Salazar restaurant (144), Maria Zazueta’s restaurant (144) ,the Kee Tong cafe (140, shop suey and noodles), and the Gee Sing or Chung Sing café (140, noodles) and the Broadway Restaurant (144, Juan Fierros, proprietor).

The dwellings in the rear of the property continued during this period to be used as residences for the Chinese population, although these tenants are not noted in city directories.

Cano Drug Store, 1929-1942

In 1929-30, the facades of the buildings were modernized, the western section (144 W. Broadway) was torn down, and a two-story Monterey-style brick building was constructed in its place. The new building, constructed for the Cano Drug store (Miguel R. Cano, proprietor) consisted of commercial space on the first floor (numbered 144) and a residence on the second floor, accessed through an arched opening from the street (eventually numbered 146).

The commercial space was accessed through a storefront within a broad, flat archway with Spanish style brackets at the corners. A new, corbelled, stuccoed brick façade was constructed across the front of the adobe section of the building, with new glazed wood storefronts typical of early 20th century design that featured central entry doors, shop windows above tiled bulkheads, and large, multi-light transoms across the top.

The M. R. Cano Drug Store opened at 144 W. Broadway in July, 1930 and remained there until 1941 or 1942. Cano’s family lived above the store during his occupancy.

During this entire period, the back L of the building probably continued to be used as residences for the Chinese community, although the only evidence for this is a 1941 directory entry indicating “Chinese” in the rear.

El Charro, 1935-1968

El Charro c.1937 (El Charro Collection)

Monica Flin moved to Tucson from Mexico in 1922 and opened the original El Charro Café on north 4th Avenue. Reflecting its continued success, El Charro moved to the old Hop Lee section of the building, 136 W. Broadway, in 1935. The business continued to expand and by 1947 occupied the entire first floor. By 1960 Mrs. Flin had moved to reside on the property as well (if not well before that). The second floor residence was rented out to various individuals.

Building just before demolition of surroundings (Tucson Citizen)

After World War II, residential use of the back part of the property had declined and was no longer marked “Chinese” on fire insurance maps. By 1947 only two sections are marked as dwellings. The other uses, including storage and tortilla manufacturing, probably supported the primary restaurant use of the property.

Ownership of the property apparently came under Flin family control some time during the El Charro period. Title research would be necessary to clarify this point.

El Charro and Belmont Hotel (El Charro Collection)

Samaniego House

Samaniego House 1960 (Tucson Citizen)

Mariano Samaniego came to Tucson in 1869. He became a key figure in Tucson’s and Arizona’s early history, as a businessman, cattle rancher, real estate investor, city councilman, Pima County Assessor, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors, a representative to the Territorial Assembly, university regent and Arizona Historical Society President. Samaniego died in 1907 at the age of 65.

The building known today as the Samaniego House reportedly has its origins in c. 1876.

One may surmise that a determination was made (between 1969 and 1973) that the original Samaniego House and the building next to it possessed the greatest significance and integrity and were spared demolition, while the remainder could be sacrificed. Preservation of the surviving portion of the Samaniego House was written into the development agreement for La Placita. La Placita was built in 1973.

A physical inspection of the house leads one to believe that preservation work did not go well, as very little of the original house remains. 80% or more of the building fabric present today is a facsimile constructed of modern materials including concrete block, steel stud framing, and wood carpentry work. Interior and exterior finishes and features including plaster and stucco, flooring, roofing, doors, windows, viga ceilings, woodwork and trim are all modern. Historic features including one adobe wall in the center of the building, much of the framing for the hipped and gabled roofs, and chimneys appear to have been stabilized in situ and incorporated into the structure. Modern floors, walls, and finishes were constructed around, beneath, and above these historic relics such that no original surface or feature of the building is visible to a casual observer.

Tucson Convention Center Landscape

Eckbo Landscape

Influential, internationally recognized landscape architect Garrett Eckbo (1910-2000), was commissioned in 1970 to design the public pedestrian spaces surrounding the new redevelopment projects. These spaces, now listed on the National Register as the Tucson Community Center Historic District include three components: Viente de Agosto Park (a small park created in a triangle of land between Broadway Boulevard and Congress Street completed in 1971), Fountain Plaza (the public pedestrian spaces surrounding the Convention Center also completed in 1971) and The Walkway (a landscaped pedestrian route linking the two larger components to the north and south.) The Walkway was not finished until 1974, after construction of the hotel to the west, and La Placita to the east, were completed.

The Walkway remains generally intact, although some condition issues were noted in the Nomination from 2012. These included age-related failure of mechanical and electrical components, missing plants, damaged tile, and relocated or altered street furniture. As stated in the nomination, “Overall condition of this segment of the District is Fair.”

Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps

1883 1886 1889

1896 1901 1909

1919 1947

Urban Renewal and La Placita Village, 1968-Present

Aerial view, 1960s (Barrio Stories website)

1973 La Placita construction photo (Arizona Daily Star)

North Facade 2018 East face of interior courtyard 2018 NE face of interior courtyard 2018

This is how we found the Cano Drug/Hop Lee Laundry building when we were hired to rehabilitate in 2018. Regardless of the potential “death warrant” of being declared historically insignificant, the El Charro building and related adobe structures were spared and preserved to become part of the La Placita Village redevelopment project, which was built in 1973. Preservation of the building, as we would understand it today, was not a goal of the La Placita project. Rather, while much of the structural fabric was retained and reused, the buildings were “modernized” in the sense that they were made to blend with the design of the modern buildings of La Placita, with new doors and windows and sporting a thick coat of heavily textured stucco. The form of the buildings was adapted to the new use by removing some of the adobe walls to create breezeways to connect the series of interlocked plazas that formed the pedestrian circulation within the development. As a final touch, the buildings, which had always been painted white or light colors, were painted in bright polychrome in an effort to represent Hispanic heritage. Rehabilitation of the building took place in 1974 as designed by Adela and Frederick A. Palafox of Smith and Palafox, architects. Notwithstanding these alterations, the essential form and detail of the buildings as they appeared after about 1922 remains discernible.

In order to rehabilitate the building to its 1929 integrity and accommodate the new use, Motley Design Group peeled back the layers of new stucco that had diminished the original decorative details and redesigned the storefront to reflect the look, feel and proportions of the storefront as designed in 1929. Photos of the rehabilitated Cano Drug/Hop Lee building to come...


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