Posted by: Brad Nixon | October 23, 2019

On Campus in Tucson with the WPA

There’s an excellent story about the founding of the University of Arizona in Tucson, which I hope is true.

In about 1884, the Arizona territorial legislature was due to apportion several significant grants at its next session (Arizona only became a U.S. state in 1912).

In that era, Prescott was the capitol of Arizona Territory.

Representatives from across the state — including those from Tucson — converged on the capitol, traveling by horse or wagon. The Tucson delegates faced a 200-mile journey, but they were determined to lobby for the award of a $100,000 grant for a state mental institution, which was on the agenda.

100 miles north of Tucson, they were stopped by a flood of the Salt River, just south of Phoenix.

Before they could reach the session legislators from Phoenix successfully secured the grant for the mental institution. As consolation, Tucson received a $25,000 grant to establish the future state’s University of Arizona.

Here is the original campus building, Old Main, under construction in 1889.


Tucson looks a bit busier today.

145 Years Later

Today, U. of A. is a massive enterprise, on an attractive campus east of downtown.

U of Arizona Yuma Brad Nixon 5966 680

Combined undergraduate/graduate enrollment is more than 45,000 students, with an academic staff of more than 3,500, making it about the 22nd largest U.S. public university.

I was impressed by the attractiveness of the central, historic portion U. of A.’s campus. I visited on a blazing-hot day this July, the clear desert air and sunlight creating a verdant scene — although sans students, due to the summer hiatus.

Any school is more than physical facilities, but Arizona’s campus has plenty of interesting architecture. Here are some highlights.

“Old Main”

That original building, “Old Main,” is still standing still used as administrative offices. It’s had a checkered past, sat derelict for a time, but was saved from demolition and restored.

Arizona Old Main Brad Nixon 5974 680

Nearby is the imposing Arizona State Museum.

Arizona museum Brad Nixon 5941 680

Established by the territorial legislature in 1893, the museum occupies the original U. of A. library building, which was constructed in 1925. I regret my schedule and the museum’s didn’t intersect, and I didn’t see the interior.

The university continued to expand and build through the new century, and there are innumerable interesting old structures to see, given time.

I’ll mention one, originally the Science building, from 1909, in a style referred to as “vernacular classical.”

U of Arizona Communications Brad Nixon 5969 680

It’s served a number of academic roles in 110 years, and is now the Communications building, within sight of Old Main. An excellent look at the architecture of that pre-WWI era.

Depression and the Big Build-Out

By 1934, Tucson and the university were growing even more. The university’s president prevailed on Arizona’s governor and legislature to apply for funding for a major building program. It was the middle of the Depression, but the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was engaged in promoting employment through ambitious public works.

Arizona was enormously successful in securing funding. In a remarkably brief period during the middle 1930s, U. of A. gained a dozen large academic and residential structures funded by grants from the WPA. Seven still stand, all designed by the university’s chief architect, Robert Place.

All the WPA structures are variations on Spanish or Italian Romanesque Revival style in red brick.

Here’s a brief look at some of them in roughly chronological order.

Humanities building, 1935; Italian Romanesque Revival. 

Arizona CESL Brad Nixon 5948 680

Now houses the Center for English as a Second Language

Arizona State Museum South Building.

Arizona museum Brad Nixon 5939 680

Facing the larger state museum building above, this was referred to as “new” museum building, from either 1935 or 1937. Sources disagree.

Centennial Hall:

Centennial hall Brad Nixon 5943 680

Performing arts, theater and music auditorium, 1937

The program included the construction of two residential dormitories in 1937.

Gila Hall:

Gila Hall Brad Nixon 5964 680

Yuma Hall.

Arizona Yuma Hall Brad Nixon 5952 680

One can only imagine the scale and intensity of the work done there in a span of a few years to erect all those buildings.

Between Gila and Yuma residential halls is another historic dormitory, Maricopa, built in 1921, prior to the WPA program.

Arizona Maricopa Brad Nixon 5961 680

Not only does Maricopa accurately represent the Italian Renaissance Revival that was popular in the ’20s, it’s the one structure I know of on campus commonly considered to be haunted.

This is a limited look around an extensive, historic campus. There’s a great deal more to see, especially when one considers the presence of museums and libraries. I admit that I was surprised to find such an attractive, lush landscape in the midsummer desert with the temperature at 114 degrees.

Oh, yes. As you can imagine, the campus holds a few small facilities for sporting activities, too. Perhaps we’ll visit those on another trip. Here’s Arizona Stadium. Concrete section dates from 1950.

Arizona stadium Brad Nixon 5517 680

I welcome corrections or additions from alumni or others better acquainted with a campus that was new to me.

© Brad Nixon 2019. Photos of University of Arizona for editorial purposes only. Archival Old Main photograph, unattributed, retrieved from University of Arizona website, October, 2019. Acknowledgment for resources from, Wikipedia, University of Arizona website and the helpful staff at the Arizona State Museum.


  1. It’s good to see that some of the original campus buildings have been saved and most of the newer construction seems to blend in well. Thanks for the guided tour.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Marion, I WILL stay the entire campus is not consistently styled. It’s an extremely large school, and there’s a great deal I did not show. In other parts, it suffers from a typical malaise, in that every building is precisely that building and references no other (although red brick does tend to get used). I attended a smaller state university in a distant state, often touted as one of the most attractive campuses, but that historic core of U of A impressed me as an equal. Thank you for commenting.

      Liked by 1 person

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