Alex La Pierre

Alex La Pierre

Friday, 28 July 2017 22:47

Tucson in the Monsoon Season

There has been some really great progress made thus far on the Barrio Viejo National Historic Landmark Project. The Fieldwork team  who are uploading architectural data has surveyed the entire neighborhood with the exception of the Barrio Santa Rosa extension. The Fieldwork volunteers are going back to double check their work and also incorporate 'non-contributing' properties that the project's GIS specialist was able to upload into the app we are utilizing. There have been some issues with the placement of the pins in the app floating around, but we are solving technical issues as they come our way. In the Historic Research Division, we are now in a phase trying to connect tax parcel ID numbers to addresses that we have in our project spreadsheets. Connecting the tax parcel ID numbers to present addresses is very vital, because we have noticed disappearing address numbers that reappear some years and new address numbers throughout the years of Tucson City Directories that are available to us. The tax parcel ID numbers are remarkably more consistent through the years, so it is the one surefire way to ensure we are collecting data for the right property. We also had a successful meeting with Placido Rodriguez, who was born in the neighborhood in 194o and, as a history buff, is very motivated to help us. He shared with us some information that really helped us understand the neighborhood much better. For example, I was always curious as to why city planners decided to move the El Tiradito, or Castaway wishing shrine, from the corner of Simpson and Meyer to its present location on Main Avenue just south of Cushing. The only reason I was able to uncover prior to meeting Placido was that it was due to a mere street widening of Simpson. Placido revealed to us the real reason, that Simpson did not go all the way through to the flood plain of the Santa Cruz River and whenever monsoon season arrived in the desert the street would become like a river. So what they did was extend the street into the flood plain so that the water had somewhere to go, and in that process they tore down the old shrine.   This week's pictures were sent to me by Carol Beidleman of EFTA from her site visit with our fieldwork crew and supervisors.
Sunday, 23 July 2017 20:42

Saguaro National Park Final Presentation

This past week was a capstone to all the work we have accomplished in the span of this Barrio Viejo National Historic Landmark Project.  We organized a thank you event to extend our gratitude to the crowd-sourced project volunteers at the downtown Tucson Hotel Congress. It was a really special event, and a wonderful opportunity to acknowledge our appreciation for them while discussing the project and their ideas from their experience thus far. We were fortunate to also host Los Descendientes del Presidio de Tucson non-profit group, which is comprised of the descendants of the original 1776 San Agustin de Tucson Presidio and Tucson history fans. We updated this group on our progress and also invited those interested to volunteer for the work ahead. Another intention for the mixer was as our farewell to Magda, the other Next Gen Intern working on this project who is headed to Mexico for research. There was also a guest of honor in our midst,  Alba Bustamante Torres (Tucson Woman of the Year in 1975), who was an instrumental community leader who helped save the traditional plaza and heart of Tucson, La Placita de Mesilla, during the scourge of the 1960s urban renewal movement. I had the opportunity to give my final project and internship presentation at the Visitor Center of Saguaro National Park East, which was attended by park staff, park visitors, and some of our volunteers. The formal presentation was preceded by a special park video relating the history of the Hispanic homesteaders who lived and worked in the area which later became one of the National Park Service's most emblematic park units. The presentation was comprised of an update on our progress, a historical background of Tucson, and an overview of the architecture style present in the historic old quarter.  The presentation culminated with an appeal for the citizens and leaders of Tucson to recognize that it is frequently instructive to look to the past and tradition when looking to solve our contemporary issues. The Sonoran adobe row house tradition is the architecture most fitting and appropriate to our local geography and climate. It is, in essence, the prefect urban expression of the environment surrounding us in the Sonoran Desert.   One of Tucson's problematic urban issues is renegade sprawl - from some areas, it takes a half an hour to get to the other side of the city. The traditional row houses are thrifty in space in having separate dwellings connected via sharing walls, and thrifty in that building materials can be sourced from the surrounding desert.  If we were to emulate this traditional Tucson style in new developments and construction we can start to combat the sprawl and destruction of  natural habitat. The temperature and humidity conditioning properties provided in the thick thermal mass of the adobe walls help desert residents save on air conditioning bills and are the eco-friendly antithesis to the figurative mobile house ovens that are common here.  I ultimately hope that the Sonoran adobe row house tradition will experience a revival through a renewed recognition in Arizona of its practicality. It is not a far stretch to hope for, considering the neighboring romanticized architectural traditions that experienced a renaissance in the early 20th century - the Mission Revival of California, and the Pueblo Revival from northern New Mexico which continues to be replicated to this day.   I learned that my internship will be extended until the end of August, which I am very thankful for because I find this work very fulfilling. I sincerely enjoy helping promote historic preservation, and consider protecting the physical reminders that are left of our past as an exceptionally worthy cause.
Wednesday, 12 July 2017 22:29

Meetings, an Interview, and my Workshop

So far this week with only three days in, there has been two meetings, an interview,  and I also held a workshop designed for the volunteers on the Barrio Viejo National Historic Landmark (NHL) project. My early Monday morning meeting was with Carol Beidleman from Environment for the Americas in from New Mexico, where we were able to discuss the progress of the internship. After introducing Carol to our fieldwork division morning shift of volunteers, I then was able to take her, as well as my internship supervisors and counterpart Magda, on a tour of the neighborhood that included an overview of what constitutes our regional arid lands architecture, the Sonoran adobe row house. Later on that day, my supervisor Helen of the University of Arizona's Heritage Conservation department and I presented our NHL project to the board members of the Barrio Viejo Historic Preservation Advisory Panel. This was a great meeting, where even before we presented I gained an enhanced awareness of the review process that architects undergo in their advisory board proposals for their clients' desired historic building alterations. The project as presented was well received and in fact one of its members, Bob Vint, an architect who works on Mission San Xavier del Bac, actually led our initial volunteer orientation Barrio tour.   Today I gave a workshop for our volunteers on the history of Tucson from the Spanish and Mexican eras into the Territorial days, Southwestern traditional and popular building trends, and presented a key to identifying architectural details and eras. I tried to convey the best I could the uniqueness of the barrio and how it stands as a last bastion of true Southwestern architecture for Arizona and Sonora, rather than Pueblo and Mission Revival styles. This morning we also had an interview with the Arizona Daily Star, Tucson’s main newspaper.  That, too, went really well and hopefully we can attract more volunteers to the project through the potential publicity gained through a newspaper article.  
Saturday, 08 July 2017 06:58

City of Mud Boxes and Mariana Diaz

There are three divisions of volunteers who comprise our effort to gain National Historic Landmark status for Tucson's old quarter, the Barrio Viejo.  One division - the fieldwork -  is recording the architectural details of each and every building in the quarter. This data is being collected on a block by block basis via a phone or tablet app, and even includes what is considered 'non-contributing' properties which are structures that are less than 50 years old. There is another division of data entry specialists who have been helping us assign existing reports such as the Historic American Building Survey (HABS), which was done in the late 1970s in the neighborhood. The third and final division is historical research, which is based and currently meets at the Archives and Research Library of the Arizona Historical Society adjacent to the University of Arizona. This team is currently working on essentially building each neighborhood structure's genealogy, through collecting data on the varying occupancy reflected in the city's directories which date back to 1881. Being able to see some of the collections pertaining to the Barrio Viejo and Tucson history at the Archive has been fascinating. Particularly so when encountering  truly colorful and almost tangible anecdotes about the history of a place that was so connected to the land. One such instance has been the discovery of an interview that took place and was published on 21 June 1873 in the Arizona Citizen newspaper, which was documented by the territorial governor of Arizona at the time,  Anson Safford. This Vermont-born governor had the foresight to record an interview he made with a 100-year old woman at the time who had lived her entire life in Tucson. That woman's name was Mariana Diaz. It is a colorful history-coming-to-life exercise to ponder her glimpses into living through both the Spanish and Mexican eras from Tucson's founding in 1775. She describes how: "they [the Apaches] murdered her husband in the field about two miles below Tucson, and that most of her relatives had gone the same way, that she was now left alone..." Mariana also relates a story of a captured boy of a Native American chief who, upon being returned to the father to usher in a period of reconciliation in Spanish-Apache relations, told him "that he liked his captors so well that he desired to live with them" and "the Indians were compelled to return to their mountain home without him." Dona Mariana also recalls the experience as a girl of two Apache assaults on the Presidio, the enclosed Spanish adobe fortress. "The first time the soldiers and males were nearly all away. The Apaches found it out and took advantage of their absence and attached the town, and would have taken and murdered everyone in it, but for the timely assistance of the Pima and Papago Indian, who came to the rescue in lager numbers and attacking the Apaches on two sides, killed some of them and drove them off." The Presidio later became the core of the modern city of Tucson. A  Southwestern city whose initial mid 19th century eastern Anglo visitors - lacking an awareness of the seasoned practicality of Hispanic desert traditions and customs - could often not get beyond critique of the Pimeria Alta's regional architecture, which they disdainfully termed Tucson as a city of  mere "mud boxes."
Its been yet another busy week with temperatures reaching 115 degrees - but it's a dry heat! My supervisors representing the National Park Service, University of Arizona, and the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation, as well as myself and counterpart Magda, had the official neighborhood meeting for all the property owners in the Barrio Viejo.  This occurred after we sent out about 350 'snail mail' letters to everyone in the neighborhood last week inviting them to the forum to talk about the National Historic Landmark (NHL) designation project that is underway. We had a pretty exceptional turn out considering the meeting was held at 5:30 p.m. on a weekday, with about 50 residents showing up. On the whole, I don't think we could have asked for a better reception; we were very well received and most, if not all, of the residents were entirely on board with what we are accomplishing. Tucson has been in the news pretty frequently lately, especially after the attention of the UNESCO World City of Gastronomy designation last year. That being said, developers are coming into the city looking for what area to carve out next for some modern behemoth. Downtown Tucson is smaller than nearby Casa Grande's downtown, and as such these developers likely have their eye on this historic district. This is part of the reason why this NHL designation is so important - to help prevent these developers from coming in and further eroding away this unique place. In another arena, we have also commenced the oral history aspect of data collection to present along side our application for NHL. We have since interviewed Sandy Chan, a retired Pima Community College Librarian and a local expert on the Chinese American history of Tucson. She provided us with information from when the first Chinese arrived in the 1870s up until the middle of the last century. She is also a volunteer at the Arizona Historical Society Research Library, where our Research volunteer group is diligently working every week. She has been really helpful in aiding the groups as well, giving us leads on our building-by-building investigations. We also were connected with Mary Wong, a Chinese American woman who, at over 90 years old, is a delightful riot!  We met her at the Chinese Cultural Center of Tucson where she invited us for lunch, and we were able to record her memories. She mentioned to us that Spanish was her first language, as a first generation American with Chinese parents growing up in Barrio Anita.
Thursday, 22 June 2017 23:46

A Pre-PDF Adobe Workshop

I was fortunate to be able to attend a workshop focused on the building blocks of the structures we are studying and surveying in the Barrio Viejo of Tucson. Those literal building blocks are adobe mud-bricks. The workshop was led by Jim Garrison, the former State Historic Preservation Officer for Arizona, and Reggie McKay, who owns an adobe rehabilitation and construction company called Adobe Technology. Although I have worked in the field of earthen architecture conservation, I always learn something new. The workshop was comprised of a classroom presentation and a practical session making adobe bricks. The workshop really had me thinking as to why the "Santa Fe" or pueblo revival style has been mimicked across the entire Southwest in cookie cutter suburbia housing developments, even in Tucson. This taco-deco style strikes me as strange, because we have our own vernacular and regional architecture here in southern Arizona, known as the Sonoran Row House tradition.  It makes more sense when one realizes how much Santa Fe and its 'style' is even internationally celebrated and copied, as the New Mexican capital has largely remained architecturally preserved. In contrast, city leaders of Tucson, in perhaps one of the greatest blunders in state history, tore out the historic core of the Barrio Viejo in the late 1960s under the guise of "Urban Renewal," largely ignoring the fact that the area was the most densely populated place in the entire state at the time. It was as if Santa Fe received later Anglo newcomers who appreciated and sought to honor Santa Fe's architectural flavor, while Tucson never overcame later Anglo arrivals' "mudbox slum'' perspective. That was an incredible shame, and Urban Renewal was a sham. Tucson lost nearly two-thirds of its historic Barrio quarter, and we are left with the one third that we are seeking National Historic Landmark (NHL) status for.  This last physical example is what makes Tucson architecturally unique, and in part promotes a sense of place. Recently Tucson was honored internationally with the UNESCO World City of Gastronomy designation, so I think the timing is very appropriate that we also give national recognition via NHL status to this amazing neighborhood in a amazing Southwestern American city.
The centigrade is rising here in the Sonoran Desert of Baja, or lower Arizona, and we are deep in the first phase of the process of doing the legwork to acquire the National Historic Landmark (NHL) designation for Tucson's historic quarter, the Barrio Viejo. This has been a super busy week for me! In addition to managing over a 100 volunteers  for the NHL project, which we have since separated into divisions - a data entry, a fieldwork, and a historic research crew, and deployed on our tasks, it was also the Arizona Historic Preservation Conference held in nearby Oro Valley, Arizona. It was very rewarding to attend the conference and even one of my supervisors, Demion Clinco of the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation, was honored with an award for this tireless work in the field of preservation in this amazing Southwestern city. I was able to attend two workshops while at the conference, which had direct applications to the work that we are doing in that they dealt with adobe technical work. The first was entitled 'Adobe and the Mudman' and was a a general overview of the conservation of earthen architecture, its use throughout the world, some case studies within Arizona, as well as a practical session where we made adobe bricks. The second workshop had to do with the application of lime plaster as a traditional coating to adobe structures,  specifically the addition of "baba de nopal" or the mucilage or slime from prickly pear cactus pads as a binder and superior adhesion material in the plaster. This was a fascinating subject, and I am very grateful I had the opportunity to attend. Finally, at the beginning of the week I welcomed another intern working on the project and actually a friend of mine, Magda, and got her up to speed to help coordinate this intensive program for our project.
Friday, 02 June 2017 16:23

Barrio Historico

[caption id="attachment_9892" align="alignnone" width="169"] Statue of a Leather Jacketed Solider or Soldado de Cuera of the Spanish Presidio of San Agustin de Tucson founded in 1776 by an Irish Spanish Military Officer Hugo O'Conor[/caption] I'm working on an incredible project for the National Park Service Urban Agenda and Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation to get the Barrio Viejo or Old Quarter of Tucson National Historic Landmark designation. It is a very special neighborhood with a unique and hyper regional architectual style known as the adobe Sonoran Row house, which admirably is the perfect building style for the realities of the Sonoran desert. What's most intriguing are the architectural qualities one encounters which are reflective of the Moorish cultural inheritance that the Spanish brought here first centuries ago.
This picture is of Ken Scolville, a wonderful local historian explaining a historical photograph, in front of a great example of this building tradition with the deep recessed windows and doors to avoid direct sunlight, and a large thermal mass of adobe that keeps the interior cool in the heat of summer.
It has been a super busy and fun week that has gone by very fast as we gear up to undertake the first phase of the process to achieve National Historic Landmark (NHL) Status for one of Tucson's oldest neighborhoods. The response by volunteers willing to help us on this project has been really astounding, and to see how many people care about the history of this Southwestern city has been very heartwarming. We have since divided our volunteer groups into three divisions - (1) a data entry team; (2) a historical research team; and (3) a fieldwork team. The research team has been charged with uncovering title documents and historical information regarding the 400 properties we will be surveying to acquire NHL status. The fieldwork team is out in the Barrio recording architectural details of each and every property in our survey zone, and uploading that information to an App known as Fulcrum. Finally we have the data entry team, who are currently uploading the information from about 53 Historic American Building Survey (HABS) reports done in 1980 to our database which already have their title histories and associated data. I have been tasked with helping manage and organize these groups into a schedule with AM and PM shifts to start tackling this important project.  NHL status for the Barrio will entail a greater public profile for the historic quarter on the national level and open up a lot of technical assistance from the National Park Service in multiple fields such as conservation.
Wednesday, 17 May 2017 01:40

Introducing Myself

  Hi everyone, my name is Alex La Pierre and I am the Latino Heritage Internship Program (LHIP) intern for the Urban Agenda in Tucson through Saguaro National Park.  I currently attend the University of Arizona and I have been a seasonal employee of the National Park Service for the past three years. I have  worked at National Historical Parks,  a National Monument, and a National Historic Trail with attributed histories exclusively reflecting our country's Spanish and Mexican heritage. I started working for the National Park Service at Fort Union National Monument in northeastern New Mexico as a summer seasonal  preservation worker, helping take care of what was the largest adobe fort and supply depot in the Southwest. Fort Union was also a base for the New Mexico Volunteers, a Hispanic military unit which fought for the Union in what was then part of the great western frontier. My next duty station was nearby at Pecos National Historical Park, just outside of Santa Fe, which preserves the remnants of one of the most significant indigenous Pueblos in the state as well as the ruins of two Spanish Colonial churches founded by the Franciscan order in the 17th and 18th centuries. It is a beautiful place where I never grew tired of the Pinon and Juniper-crested mahogany orange mesas that surrounded the site.  After a life-changing University of Arizona ethnographic field school in the northern Mexican state of Sonora, I decided that the Arizona-Sonora borderlands were where I wanted to be and was fortunate enough to secure a seasonal preservation position here at Tumacacori National Historical Park, just 20 minutes north of the international border at Nogales and 45 minutes south of Tucson. Tumacacori is a mission site that was first founded in the late 17th century by Eusebio Francisco Kino, a German speaking Italian Jesuit priest. It is an extremely tranquil place adjacent to the Santa Cruz River and its accompanying Cottonwood-Willow-Elderberry gallery forest, the most endangered type of forest in North America. Mesquite bosques or thickets line either side of the river, and it was through this forest I refer to as the "Sonoran Jungle" that Juan Bautista de Anza led a colonizing expedition to found what is now the city of San Francisco, California, in 1775-76. The Anza National Historic Trail has been my latest seasonal position in the Interpretation division while still duty-stationed here at beautiful Tumacacori. . I am really excited about this LHIP internship which starts next week, for many reasons. One reason is that upon completion of the program and my degree, I will be eligible for non-competitive hire for a permanent position in the National Park Service, which has been my professional goal all along.  I truly consider this LHIP Direct Hire Authority Resource Assistant position as a really rare opportunity to realize this goal with this chance it provides. My heart is also 100 % aligned with the project I will be working on. The project is to conduct the research and work on the documentation required in order to make the Barrio Viejo - what remains of the historic Hispanic city core of Tucson - a National Historic Landmark. The Barrio Viejo is so important to me because it really represents one of the last physical vestiges of the regional Sonoran adobe row house architectural tradition - a unique vernacular architecture that really ties us to our neighboring Mexican state of Sonora to the south. It is so important that we accomplish this project of gaining National Historic Landmark status in order to preserve this treasure which reflects the beautiful diversity in the story of the United States.
Wednesday, 28 November 2018 20:07

Alex La Pierre

Alex La Pierre has been interested in the Spanish Colonial and Mexican history of the Southwest since the 4th grade, when all California students build and complete a mission report as a part of the state history curriculum. He has been working for the National Park Service seasonally for the past four years at Spanish Colonial and western history based National Park Service units in New Mexico and Arizona. Alex is particularly excited to be working in Tucson as this summer’s LHIP intern in the historic Barrio Viejo.