12/29/15: Tucson’s Barrio Histórico

I had been to Tucson, AZ seven times before my recent trip, and yet I had never made it to the Barrio Histórico. That’s why a visit to this historic district in downtown was at the top my list of destinations this time around. ´

My first stop was at the Cathedral of Saint Augustine on S Stone Avenue. Its history traces back to 1776 although its present Mexican baroque facade, reminiscent of Mission San Xavier del Bac south of town, wasn’t built until 1928. While I’m not religious, I’m a sucker for grandiose church architecture and loved this building.


Much to my surprise, I was able to park right in front of the cathedral!

The Barrio Histórico is also known as the Barrio Viejo (Old Neighborhood) or the Barrio Libre (Free Neighborhood) because in the old days its predominantly Mexican inhabitants were free to follow their own laws. It occupies roughly twenty blocks between W Cushing and W 19th Street and between S Stone Avenue and the railroad tracks. I parked on S Meyer near W 19th and simply walked around.


This old City of Tucson pamphlet has a good description of the Barrio’s history:

[The Barrio Histórico Historic Zone was]  first settled in the mid to late 1800s by residents who began building homes and businesses beyond the old Presidio walls […]. The real growth occurred during the Territorial Period, and development accelerated with the arrival of the Southern Pacific railroad in 1880.

While the Barrios were primarily working class Mexican neighborhoods, the residents enjoyed a surprising diversity of ethnic backgrounds, including Chinese, African American, Anglo and Native Americans. The working men and women of the Barrios labored in a wide variety of professions, usually right within the areas in which they lived. This resulted in not only an identity for the residents, but also provided a complete economic base within the confines of the neighborhood.


This looks like a front door but I can’t imagine it’s in use anymore


I like the jaunty hats protecting the growing tips of this Mexican fence post cactus

Most of the houses in the Barrio Histórico are small, single-story adobe and brick buildings that extend right up to the street. They were built this way to create a central courtyard which serves as a shady outdoor living space. According to the Barrio Viejo web site, “there is no larger collection of 19th century adobe buildings in the United States.”

Many of these Sonoran-style houses have been lovingly restored and now make for very photogenic subjects. Even though there isn’t much room for plantings, virtually every house features some greenery in the front, even if it’s just a few potted cacti. Others have a small tree or two, usually palo verdes or mesquites.

I had no particularly destination here so I let myself be guided by what caught my eye. At times I felt transported to another time, or another place. This kind of poking around is one of my favorite things to do on vacation, and I enjoyed—loved—every minute of it here. I hope my photos will do this very special part of Tucson justice.



Contemporary look with CORTEN doors



Even a CORTEN mailbox (?)


Corrugated metal gate and Yucca rigida, what’s not to love!


More metal goodness


Brick building with rectangular wooden archway


Fixer upper


Restored Spanish Colonial, a bit too fancy for the neighborhood


Pedilanthus macrocarpus


Backyard rainwater cistern


I loved this gate, and the palo verde on the left


Flowering octopus agave (Agave vilmoriniana)


Colorful two-story row houses


One of my favorite houses


A metal artist must live nearby


I saw quite a bit of beautiful metalwork…


…but this was something else


Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) and shadow


Opuntia, Agave americana and palo verde

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Whimsical Christmas decorations


Look at the size of those opuntias! They’re small trees!



Another fixer upper…


…and another. Below the plaster you can see how the walls were originally built.


Check out the tiny opuntia in front of the wall


The corrugated metal fence on the right is killer!


Traditional Sonoran row houses


Small aloe planting


Ocotillo fence


Ocotillo against an old corrugated metal panel

I walked by several houses that were being fixed up, and I briefly chatted with a well-spoken resident who steered me toward the brick building with the rectangular archway you saw towards the top of this post. It’s very clear that this neighborhood is undergoing a quite a bit of gentrification. I hope it will manage to preserve its original character and charm.




  1. Mmmmm ...this makes me think. What do think the age of these houses is? We have a few that look like that around here (EastLA), not the ones with the out-of-place pediments(?) but those you call fixer-uppers. Many have the same features like colorful exteriors, the cut-off corners and barred windows; here mainly mom-and-pop stores. You have opened my eyes and I look at them a new way now appreciating their unique qualities like simplicity, pride and culture. Oh, what could be done in our barrios!

    1. From what I read, many of these houses date back to the 1870-1880s.

      Yes, you're so right. A lot can be done with existing houses, even (or especially!) very modest ones. I love the use of color, something so many new developments seem to be deathly afraid of!

  2. You do take fabulous photos but the place just looks wonderfully photogenic as well!

    1. I love this style of architecture and its exuberant use of color. Always puts a smile on my face.

  3. funny that one of your favorite houses was mine as well. thanks for a strong dose of Southwest sunshine. The colors are fantastic.

    1. I felt so alive after my 2-hour walk through the Barrio Histórico. There's something really special about this place.

  4. I enjoyed this trip through Tucson's streets. The houses have a stark beauty and show that even spare gardens can add character to the plainest structure. I loved the metal sculptures, especially the one creating shadows on the blue wall.

    1. Yes!!! Even the smallest space has room for a few plants. I was excited to find so many succulents everywhere I went.

  5. Another place in Tucson to visit. Wonderful tour, thank you.

    1. I made a point of visiting places I had never been. And I found some treasures, including the Barrio Histórico.

  6. Wow, that's some amazing metal work! Those corten doors were beautiful. Thanks for sharing this wonderful slice of Tucson (and some inspiration for my Opuntia to grow into :))

    1. I wish I knew a metalsmith locally who can do this kind of work.

  7. Just wonderful Gerhard! I felt like I was walking around with you, I love neighborhoods like that. Thank you!

    1. I knew it would be right up your alley, seeing how much you enjoy walking around (new) neighborhoods :-).

  8. Gerhard, there are one or two of your featured houses that are fairly recent but look like remodels which says volumes about the builder. And you have featured a few of my favorites.
    Theresa in Tucson

    1. Theresa, I'm so excited that somebody from Tucson actually saw my post. The more time I spend in Tucson, the more I love it. I could see myself living there!

  9. Gerhard, I found your blog when I was googline Sonoran row houses. I'm looking for architectural details for a new house we are working on and paused to wander through your blog.
    Theresa in Tucson


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