Tucson has a rich history that can be found in even the unlikeliest of places, particularly in the downtown and university area. You can live in a 100-year-old castle, work in a haunted office building or eat pizza in a past funeral home without ever knowing it. Here are three historical buildings in Tucson that have been repurposed for other uses.
The Castle Apartments
It’s hard to miss the charming beige castle looming above the cookie cutter houses from Euclid Avenue. The most notable feature is the tower that looks like something straight out of Camelot. Castle Apartments and Vacation Rentals, located on the corner of Adams Street and Euclid Avenue, offers a charming housing option for University of Arizona students, but about 110 years ago the castle was known by a different name – Whitwell Hospital.
Whitwell Hospital began construction in 1906 and was named after Dr. William Scollay Whitwell, a prominent doctor who practiced primarily in New York and San Francisco. After Whitwell’s death in 1903, his widow, Blanche Whitwell established a memorial to her late husband by creating Whitwell Hospital.
The hospital treated “consumptives” or “lungers” which were common names for those suffering with tuberculosis. This was the first sanatorium in Tucson dedicated to providing medical diagnosis and treatment of tuberculosis.
On December 29, 1908, the hospital caught fire, leaving only charred and smoking ruins. According to Tucson Daily Citizen archives, the superintendent of the hospital said that he thought the fire started from a chimney spark which landed on the dry shingle roof.
There were only ten patients in the hospital at the time and all were safely escorted out of the building with no serious injuries. The fire cost Mrs. Whitwell about $60,000 in damages, according to Tucson Fire Foundation records. Many of the original structures withstood the flames like the storehouse, the nurse’s cottage and the pumphouse.
However, Mrs. Whitwell was determined to rebuild the hospital after the tragic loss. This time the structure would be fire proof. The new fireproof design included brick walls and reinforced concrete floors and roof.
The castle later served as several hospitals and sanatoriums, apartments, a hotel, a convent and a retirement home. It has served as student housing and vacation rentals since 1999 when Owner Kathy Busch came across the property.
Her son, Zack Busch, manages the property today with his wife Amy. The apartments consist of studio or one bedroom units and two vacation rentals.
Busch said his mother was originally drawn to the building because of the unique architecture. As time passed, she grew curious about the building’s origin and conducted her own research on the historical significance.
He said most tenants aren’t overly interested in the history of the property, but some are curious.
“A lot of folks will come in and one of their first questions if they’re intrigued, they’ll ask if it’s haunted,” Busch laughed. “It’s a valid question, but no there are no chains [rattling] stuff like that.”
Busch said the structure has good bones, but maintaining an over 100-year-old building has its challenges. Busch said during a couple of plumbing projects they’ve found clay pipes. At this point, they’re starting to work in copper pipes to take care of the plumbing.
Another obstacle is air conditioning and heating. The building does not have a central air system, so each unit has its own window-unit AC.
“One thing that strikes a historical cord is fact that we have radiated heat,” Busch said. “That’s old school, and those still do work. Everyone, they can control their own heat, whereas before there wasn’t a controlled apparatus to help let heat out or keep heat in.”
The low-lit hallways of the main building resemble the moody tones of a typical century old castle, complete with Medieval flags adorning the walls. The only thing out of place was the apartment numbers that hung carefully on the pale pink doors.
For those who do not know, the units look like nothing more than a typical studio or one bedroom apartments, but it’s much more. It’s easy to imagine the room’s appearance a hundred years ago when examining the layout of the units. The bathroom is only a few steps away from the bed, and if you close your eyes you can imagine a quiet hospital room.
In the back of the building, remnants of the convent stood in the corner of the property.
“There is an Our Lady of Guadalupe. There’s kind of a prayer area that has a tile façade where I imagine folks used to go out and pray,” Busch said.
Preservation is important to the Busch family, and they think the building has charm.
“I would not want to alter the foundation of the property,” Busch said. “I think I’d want to beautify it. I’d want to add value in terms of small projects that extenuate the features.”
Since opening the apartment complex, Busch said they’ve added basketball courts and a bike cage to keep tenant’s bikes safe from theft.
The Castle Apartments typically fills up, but leasing begins early March. It is located on 721 E. Adams St.
The Pioneer Building
It is December 20, 1970. A date labeled as the worst day in Tucson’s history at the time. Flames engulfed the famous Pioneer International Hotel on Stone Avenue reaching all the way to the upper floors. People jumped from their windows, desperate to escape the fire. 29 people died that early morning including notable owners of a large downtown department store, Harold and Margaret Steinfeld.
The Pioneer International Hotel was a staple in downtown Tucson. It was opened in 1929 and was one of Tucson’s first high-rise buildings. The building was designed by Architect Roy Place. It was 11 stories tall and housed the largest ballroom in the country.
Shortly after the fire, police arrested 16-year-old Louis C. Taylor who was eventually imprisoned for starting the fire. He was convicted in 1972 and served more than 40 years in prison. Years later, experts using modern forensics concluded the fire may not have even been caused by arson.
In 2013, Taylor was released from prison, but with a catch. The Pima County Attorney’s Office and the Arizona Justice Project insisted he plead no contest for the 28 counts of murder, according to an Arizona Daily Star article.
This year, Taylor, now in his early 60s, was arrested for armed robbery after his DNA was found at the scene in June.
Despite its dark past, the Pioneer building was rebuilt years after the devastating fire. Today, the building serves as office spaces and is owned by Holualoa Pioneer LLC.
Frankie Estelle worked in the Pioneer building briefly from around 2002 to 2006. She worked in the Community Relations Office at the time. Estelle said the office space was on the second floor which had not been used since the fire.
Estelle said during her time in the building, odd things would happen around the office.
It was about 5:30 at night. The white florescent lights shone above Estelle’s desk. All of her coworkers had gone home, but she sat at her desk talking to her sister on the phone. Suddenly, she heard a distinct party singing “Happy Birthday” somewhere on her floor.
“Hey there’s a party over here,” she told her sister excitedly.
She said the singing was very clear and loud.
“I have the worst sweet tooth. I love sweets,” Estelle said. “So, I’m like I’m going to try and score some cake. I’m going to go.”
She searched for the party, eager for the prospects of cake. As she walked around her wing, she couldn’t find anyone, so she continued her search. She made her way down the hall, the lights flickering on as her movement set off the motion sensors.
“I didn’t really think much of it,” she said. “I went to dinner with a friend. It was like my ex’s workmates. We all went to dinner together, and I told my story about what happened and how it was really kind of bizarre and strange. And this guy got up from dinner and like freaked out and left like started bawling, you know, at dinner.”
She said she felt guilty and confused. “What have I done?” she thought to herself.
Estelle later learned from his girlfriend at the time that he was training to be a firefighter. Estelle’s story had wigged him out because he used to go to the Pioneer International Hotel with his friends for sock hops.
“He said that where my office was, that we had described it, would have been where the balcony was for the dance floor,” Estelle said. “He was one of the first on the scene at the fire, so he saw people jumping out of the building and I guess it just scarred him for life.”
Estelle said originally people didn’t want to call the Pioneer building the Pioneer Hotel because they didn’t want to associate the new building with the dark history. When they were putting up the 100 N. Stone Ave. sign, the building caught fire.
“The fire alarm never went off, and it started in the basement in the boiler room that looks like it’s straight out of a Freddy Kruger movie,” Estelle said. “So, I guess it started there and it burned all the way up to the third floor up the back of the building, and it never set off the fire alarm, so we finally pulled them.”
The Pioneer building has not been listed in the National Register of Historic Places because the building has changed too much since it’s reconstruction. According to an Arizona Daily Star article, the owners of the building have teamed up with SinfoniaRx to restore the old Pioneer Hotel dining room to its former glory.
The Pioneer building is located on 100 N. Stone Ave.
Reilly Craft Pizza and Drink
Reilly Craft Pizza and Drink offers more than just your typical food and drink. The rustic and elegant pizzeria was once home to the deceased before they made their way six feet under.
Reilly Funeral Home was built in 1906 and had gone unused since 1990. That was until Taylor and Zach Fenton converted the building into their pizzeria. Their father, Steve Fenton, bought the building in 2007, according to an Arizona Daily Star article.
The pizzeria maintains much of the funeral homes original structure including the brick and arches on the ceiling and the Reilly sign out front.
Brandon Dillon, chef, said he believes Tyler Fenton wanted to honor the memory of the Reilly family who ran the funeral home for years. He said Fenton tried to include as much of the original building as possible.
The funeral home was established by John I. Reilly. Originally the mortuary was located on Church Avenue, then Congress Street, before settling at Pennington Street in 1908. Reilly passed on his legacy to his children after his death in 1946. The second floor was used as the family’s home until the building was left vacant in 1990.
Dillon said most of the customers are aware of the building’s past and the most frequently asked question is if he has any ghost stories.
“My two years there, it is safe to say, I have not,” Dillon said.
They now use the basement where the dead used to be kept as a bar.
Dillon added that the food is “to die for.” Reilly Craft Pizza and Drink is open Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Saturday from 12 to 11 p.m. and Sunday from 12 to 9 p.m. They are located on 101 E. Pennington St.