Falling Off the Turnip Truck

I fell off the proverbial turnip truck shortly after I purchased property in Armory Park almost ten years ago.

I arrived in the neighborhood full of hope and vision. I was thrilled to have found such a lovely neighborhood in which I could establish my business. As I looked at the property that used to house Central Alarm, I began to see ways to make it more homey and welcoming–especially with natural light through windows.

Living on 4 acres in west Tucson at the time, I was used to doing whatever I wanted and when I wanted on my property…without having to consult anybody. My independent streak was also rooted in the soil of my home state, Wyoming–true cowboy country with lots of open prairie and very few people. Its history includes being the first state to give women the vote.

Growing up in Wyoming, I learned from my father from a very early age that it was almost always better to buy than rent. So, when my lease at my previous space was coming to a close, I asked my realtor to help me find a place for me to buy. In marked contrast to my year-long search for a house, the options for commercial properties were limited, and I made up my mind quickly. There was something about the beauty and warm, neighborly feel of the Armory Park neighborhood that sent a clear signal to me, “This is the place.”

The property I purchased on 330 E. 16th St. had most recently owned by an investor who simply held it for two caritas-tucsonyears after purchasing it from Central Alarm. The founders of Central Alarm had originally lived in the house as a family and started their business in
the back room. Because of that, it had the rare status of being grandfathered in as a property that could be utilized for business purposes.

Because of the business they were in, the place was built like Fort Knox, with a security clearance similar to what Raytheon had. So secure it was that neither the phone company nor I could find the phone lines, and the latter ended up drilling a hole through my outside wall to get a phone line into the building. Years later I spoke with one of the former owners, who said that the lines were buried underground…another discovery too late in coming.

Another part of their security was having almost no windows in the building…just two in the front, presumably to exude a bit more of a warm welcome to customers. Since I was going to be running a healing center, not an alarm system, I wanted to bring in warmth and light as much as possible, and windows seemed to be the quickest, most energy efficient way to do that. In addition to bringing in natural light, my intention was to to create a sense of privacy, as some clients would be disrobed while getting a massage. To meet both those needs, I decided that narrow rectangular windows mounted high on the wall would be best.

It all seemed like a logical, practical thing to do. Little did I know what was to come just as my windows project neared completion…

“You’ve got to stop NOW!”

This is reportedly what a concerned neighbor told the worker who was installing the last window in a series of 10.

My country/cowgirl self found out quickly that living in a historic neighborhood was more than just having a lovely neighborhood where many of the homes had old-word charm. It seems horribly naive to me now, but at the time, I had no knowledge of how historic neighborhoods were formed and the responsibilities of residents who lived there.

I went to my first historic meeting with cookies–figuring you could catch more flies with honey. Cookies or not, the conclusion was still the same: the long, high windows made of vinyl had to go. Because I needed to get something called a Certificate of Occupancy (CofO) in order to legally practice my business of psychotherapy, there was an urgent need to get right with the city, and the neighborhood. At one point, a city official said I would have to restore the building to its original condition in order to get my CofO.

After hiring an engineering firm and then an architect, I finally had approved plans (with the invaluable stamp) that would “allow” me to take out the existing windows and replace them with the historically appropriate “wooden, double-hung” windows. (The story has more details, but that could be its own short story!)

Going through this process, I often felt like crying and perhaps I did. At a recent historic preservation meeting I attended, I didn’t see anyone shed any tears, but I could sense the frustration property owners had as they appealed to the historic board regarding their construction projects. In both cases, a structure had already been erected and then it was discovered that it was not in congruence with historic standards.

What I saw this time that I hadn’t seen before (when I was just like that root vegetable falling off the truck), was the difficult position the historic board members occupy. Their job is to preserve one of the key thing that makes this neighborhood so beautiful and valuable–its historic integrity. Yet, in so doing, they often run up against property owners’ desire to have practical things added to their properties, such as windows, fences, and shade.

When confronted with the heartbreaking situation of work that has already been done (often at considerable expense), they are in the unenviable position of appearing rigid and indifferent to a person’s situation if they uphold the historic standards strictly, or, alternatively, contributing to the demise of the historic nature of the neighborhood if they simply say, “Okay, we understand. We’ll let it go this time, but don’t tell any of the neighbors!”

At the recent meeting, I saw the historic board strike an admirable balance, holding the line in some cases and looking for alternatives (including amelioration in the case of one building was constructed a bit too high) in others. I appreciated the care for the neighborhood that they showed just by serving on the board (often a thankless job, like a motorcycle cop), the cumulative knowledge they had, and their wariness of setting dangerous precedents. I imagined they must call on the wisdom of King Solomon in these cases–as he did when faced with two women–each claiming a baby as their own.

More often than not, these things happen due to ignorance (yes, I’m raising my hand) and/or misunderstanding (by the property owner or by the builder/contractor). After my rite of passage into the historic neighborhood, I was invited to join the APNA board and happily joined. The committee I joined was Outreach and my mission was to do what I could to ensure future property owners in Armory Park were at least made aware of what the procedures are in making permanent changes to one’s property. We did this via a welcome packet that had this information (as well as additional materials), but it was a challenge to reach all owners. The historical review board recently sent out a letter to property owners in the neighborhood, detailing the steps one needs to go through when making changes to historic properties, with similar intentions, I presume.

In writing this article, I hope to do one more small thing to help enlighten and spread the truth about living in a historic neighborhood so that all may know. We may grumble at times about the restrictions we face living in a historic neighborhood, but much better to grumble knowingly than to take action in innocence and with the best of intentions and then be told one’s efforts need to be reversed. No amount of written materials (whether in welcome packets or sent via mail) will ensure that every property owner fully understands both the rewards and the responsibilities of living in a historic neighborhood such as ours. While not an absolute guarantee, curiosity about our neighbors and face to face communication with them greatly increases the odds of increased knowledge of best practices as well as a sense of wanting to be invested in this community, the greatest gift of all!

I would love to hear your stories as well as your ideas about how we can increase understanding of building practices in our lovely neighborhood, so please share. Perhaps this process will generate new possibilities heretofore not considered. Please weigh in! In the meantime, to get the official lowdown on the steps involved in making a change to your property, please go here:


Karen Olson  karen@aroundarmorypark.net

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