For as long as most anyone in Tucson can remember, it was the dilapidated little white house on the north edge of the University of Arizona campus. Over the years, it had been home to a succession of residents, including scientists, University students and staff and, for the last several years, no one.
But the house has a history, and R. Brooks Jeffery, director of the Drachman Institute in the UA College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, or CALA, thinks it's a story worth telling. As it happens, there's a happy ending.
Built more than a century ago, the Cannon-Douglass House was designed to be a modest territorial home, with no pretense of being an architectural showpiece. Somehow, it managed to avoid the wrecking ball as other houses along Speedway either were demolished or uprooted and moved to make way for wider streets and new UA construction.
Jeffery, who also runs the graduate interdisciplinary Heritage Conservation program for the college, led a group of his students through "a comprehensive building preservation plan" of the house. What they discovered early on was that despite Cannon-Douglass' rundown appearance, some lingering health and safety issues and years of neglect, the basic structure of the house was still remarkably intact.
This was especially good news because it also meant that costs to revive the house wouldn't be a deal-killer.
May Carr, the campus architect who is managing the project for UA Planning, Design and Construction, said: "There are always unforeseen conditions with historic structures. So, everyone is very, very pleased that the structure of the house is in relatively good condition. Even the termite damage was less than expected for the building's age and condition. Also, the original floor plan of the house remains intact, so architecturally it's considered a rehabilitation and not a restoration."
The architecture firm Burns Wald-Hopkins Shambach and the contractor, Division II, were brought in for the project. Both have experience with historic preservation jobs, including the historic UA Indian Ruin site.
The Cannon-Douglass House and the Smith House next door, built in 1906 and 1904 respectively, are both listed on the National Register of Historic Places and were donated to the University in 1989 with an agreement to preserve them.
Jeffery said they were likely the first campus-area homes north of Speedway. The only UA buildings from that era still standing are Old Main, Herring Hall and the first Library and Museum, now called the Douglass Building.
George E.P. Smith, the first head of the UA engineering and physics department and an expert on ground water management, built the first of these houses in 1904 in the Queen Anne style for his personal residence.
It currently houses the Drachman Institute Center for Heritage Conservation, including Jeffery's office, as well as workspace for researchers and graduate research assistants, a library and a seminar room. The Smith House also is home to the National Park Service's Desert Southwest Cooperative Ecosystems Studies Unit.
William A. Cannon built the second house – a far more spartan, one-story residence – in 1906. Cannon, the first resident botanist at the Carnegie Foundation's Desert Botanical Laboratory on Tumamoc Hill, was instrumental in establishing the lab as an international center for the studying desert ecology.
In 1913, he sold the house to another scientist, astronomer and physics professor Andrew E. Douglass, who had moved to Tucson just a few years earlier from Flagstaff where he worked at the Lowell Observatory. Douglass, who is credited with developing the science of dendrochronology, later began the UA Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research and the Steward Observatory, which have both become institutions with enormous international reach.
"The design of this house is relatively unique because it has this main, central living room that goes all the way from the front of the house to the back," said Jeffery. "This is atypical, almost like a Sonoran zaguan, a part-living room, part-breezeway and part-central hallway from which all the other rooms are located."
Both houses, he said, also represent the origins of neighborhood development adjacent to the UA as residential enclaves for faculty.
"For example, this house also would have been an office, a place for students to come and talk to the professors. The front yard of this house was probably out to the middle of what is now Speedway, so that context has been lost, but the unique characteristics of the houses still act as a reminder of the relationship between where the professors worked and lived."
Repairing Cannon-Douglass and keeping its historic integrity presented Jeffery and Carr with some challenges. The ceiling, for instance, was weighed down by hundreds of pounds of crushed lava, possibly used for insulation, and had to be shoveled out to ease the pressure on the ceiling joists that had begun to sag.
"There also was a 1920s-era enclosed sleeping porch on the north side that was structurally unsound and became a life-safety hazzard and was removed," Jeffery said. In order to comply with preservation standards, Jeffery contacted the State Historic Preservation Office "to make sure we had their blessing to demolish the porch, along with the commitment that we will be building it back over time to represent that era of the building's history."
In its place, he said, the new design will include a new open porch that will become a foyer to the main entrance. A landscaped and handicap-accessible path will connect the house to the Eller College's McClelland Hall, the adjacent Smith House and with the Olive Road pedestrian tunnel leading to the main campus.
Most of the work on the house includes new roofing, trim and gutters, plaster repair, floor replacement and paint. There's also new mechanical, electrical, IT, security and plumbing systems.
"We discovered that once you are able to put in new infrastructure – air conditioning, plumbing – and make sure all of that is solid and in good condition, the rest of it can be maintained very, very well. It's really the infrastructure that is the root of most troubles in older homes. If you have a good roof, sound walls and foundation, then you're OK," said Jeffery.
"It isn't going to be a bells-and-whistles kind of house. The rehabilitation going to take it back to its original character, which was a relatively modest house. But it's very, very functional."
Jeffery said the advancement of the University depends on having places for research groups to work on interdisciplinary issues, what he called "intellectual spaces." Having Cannon-Douglass eases some of the pressure on CALA's growing academic programs, especially after budget constraints limited the size of the new CALA addition and the Planning Program was brought back to the college.
Said Jeffery: "We're very fortunate to be able to have this kind of space."