Concrete Fountain Renews Tucson’s Historic Plaza
Jennifer M. Levstik
Even the most innocuous objects have stories to tell. Tucson’s El Presidio Fountain is one of them. Constructed at the height of Urban Renewal between 1970 and 1971, this concrete fountain represents an outstanding example of late Modernist public art and an expression of how communities rebuild their image over time.
Located within El Presidio Park in downtown Tucson, the fountain serves as a focal point within a complex of City of Tucson and Pima County-owned municipal buildings. The name El Presidio Park, referencing the park’s Spanish origins, is just one of several names—La Plaza de las Armas, Court-house Plaza, Court Plaza, and El Presidio Plaza—that graced this small park.
In 1775, with the construction of the Spanish presidio in Tucson and the protection it offered, private construction outside the presidio’s adobe walls enabled the establishment of the Plaza de las Armas. By the late 19th century, increasing Anglo-American settlement transformed Tucson's urban core. A new courthouse constructed immediately to the plaza's east led to renaming it Court-house Plaza.
Between 1881 and 1888, a Presbyterian Church was established along the margins of Court-house Plaza; a new courthouse replaced the earlier one, and the former open space became a formal park with a radial plan. This transition from a Spanish military plaza to a parque central represented the first significant "re-branding" of El Presidio Park. Through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the old adobes and their former residents were replaced with new classical-styled civic and religious buildings and Anglo residents.
From the late 1940s onwards, federally incentivized urban renewal programs sought to sanitize downtowns and facilitate the expansion of their associated business districts. Often, this involved the demolition of adjacent neighborhoods, classified as “blighted,” to clear land for subsequent investment--that did not always materialize.
The continuing decline of Tucson's downtown led city voters to approve the "Pueblo Center" plan in 1966 that remade 76 acres of its downtown core. Federal funds and city bonds financed the condemnation and demolition of the area and construction of new public facilities. The plan included a civic and governmental center whose central Court Plaza anchored the surrounding administrative buildings.
The remake of Court Plaza (now El Presidio Park) in the Pueblo Center Redevelopment Plan was entrusted to local Tucson architect Michael Angel Lugo, Jr. of the architectural firm of Blanton and Company. Lugo’s involvement in the redevelopment of El Presidio Park appears to have been a career highlight.
The task before him was far from easy; Blanton and Company had created a 3-story subterranean parking garage that placed severe weight restrictions on the landscape above. Further, the park needed to wed the Spanish Colonial design of the Pima County Courthouse with the formalist and brutalist lines of the new public administration buildings now opposite it.
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This article originally appeared in the bimonthly Arizona Contractor & Community magazine, Jul/Aug 2021 issue, Vol. 10, No. 4.