Here's the story of how Pima County built this atrocious monstrosity
Sure, the old Pima County Courthouse is one of our most beloved buildings, but in 1928 some lawyers were furious about the proposed design. One told the Tucson Citizen newspaper that the design was "wholly devoid of all aspects of dignity, which were sacrificed to style." And yes, opponents also used the words "atrocious" and "monstrosity" to describe the building.
So the story goes like this. Pima County first overwhelmingly rejected building a $500,000 courthouse. A couple of years later, in 1928, the Board of Supervisors came back with a $300,000 proposal. But it was hardly without controversy, at first.
On July 11 the Citizen reported that lawyers it interviewed said the design, by Tucson architect Roy Place, would not command the respect that one looks for in a judicial or government building.
Lesley B. Allen, the head of something the Citizen called the "Knights of the Round Table," opined of the Spanish Colonial Revival design that "All of Tucson clambers to look like Mexico instead of the United States."
Judge Clarence Blenman was quoted in the July 12 Citizen as saying "I don't see why a community of red-blooded Americans should go to Spain or anywhere else for their ideas of architecture. Let's build an American courthouse, a big square serviceable building, with plenty of floor space for future needs and a class of design that will impress the beholder."
The Arizona Daily Star had a different take on the brouhaha. It said just a few lawyers were grumbling, and in a July 14 editorial it said: "There are sufficient atrocious buildings in the city without adding another block house affair to Tucson's conglomeration of architecture. It is about time the city began a systematic plan to make public and private buildings conform to the spirit of the Southwest."
By Sept. 1 the Star observed that opposition to the design disappeared "overnight" and suggested that raw politics was at work. "There is rumor that this was due to a decided political blunder on the part of those who are out to defeat Joe Ronstadt for re-election as supervisor.
"The story as it is told is this: Ronstadt, as supervisor was at least partly responsible for the plans ..... Seeking to discredit him, his opponents ridiculed the Spanish architecture of the proposed building. In the course of this campaign some things were said that offended the Mexican-American population which, naturally, along with a large portion of the rest of the voters, thinks Spanish design the only appropriate one in this old Spanish city. Ronstadt's opponents learned too late that they were making votes for him instead of hurting him."
The Star was right about voters because on Sept. 11, by a margin of 2,532 to 1,370, voters approved the sale of bonds to construct the courthouse, which also included offices for other county departments, including the jail.
But here is one last juicy tidbit. The Board of Supervisors approved a list of extras that would be included only if construction bids, let in December 1928, came in low enough. One of those extras was for the tile on the dome.
Today, architect Roy Place's courthouse is on the National Register of Historic Places.