Bisbee locals grapple with historic preservation

A view from Laundry Hill of an area with Old Bisbee homes for sale. Jamie Verwys/Arizona Sonora News

More than two dozen unoccupied, potentially unsafe homes can be found along Old Bisbee’s historic main drag. An unofficial network of community members, contractors and residents are buying up the last of these homes to ensure the town preserves its aesthetic.

They want “funky Bisbee” to remain “funky Bisbee.”

Jon Sky, owner of The Parlor tattoo studio, is leading the charge on what he calls “restoring Bisbee.”

“My passion is concrete…building big decks, structures, additions, taking things that people say can’t be fixed and fixing them,” Sky said. “There’s nothing beyond repair.”

The majority of local residents and city officials believe historic preservation is a top priority. And there are very specific guidelines and processes for anyone hoping to renovate or demolish one of the houses that fall into the historic category.

Under the State Historic Property Tax program, those who purchase a home listed in the National Register of Historic Places individually or as part of a district are eligible for a property tax reduction of 35 to 45 percent.

Currently, there is a handful of abandoned homes, weathered by time and available for a relatively low purchasing price.

According to Sky, there is profit to be made, or a dream home to be built out of these homes, but it requires time and skill.

Sky purchased several homes in the area, including the one he lives in now with his wife and two teenage daughters. He and his friends added a deck in seven days, which almost doubled the house’s size. The renovation was designed to mimic the original house.

“My goal is to snatch up all these [properties] before someone else does and wants to tear them down,” he said.

He hopes to bring back the corner store from his childhood, create low-income housing and build some apartments to rent to visitors. Soon, Sky will be working on several construction projects in Flagstaff to help fund design gigs in Bisbee.

While he does his best to avoid a demolition of a home, the challenges of maintaining old buildings are high. He is often up against termite damage, old wood and the hill the homes are built into. Sometimes a building is beyond renovation.

“If you do have to tear down a structure, you can just take pictures of it and rebuild it how it was,” he said. “If you have to demolish a structure that’s what you do in a historic town; you don’t just tear it down and just build whatever.”

A row of brick buildings in Old Bisbee houses several local businesses. Striping the paint to reveal the historic brick was one of resident Jon Sky’s most recent restoration projects.

Resident Kathleen Dunley said she moved to Bisbee because she missed living in an historic house. Her original goal was to restore her home, which was erected in 1910, but the project was plagued with roadblocks.

“I’m trying to maintain the functionality and look as best I can, but it’s expensive work,” Dunley said. “I now understand more than ever the frustrations of someone thinking they can restore, but not being able to complete it.”

Becky McIntyre owns the Toland Adobe, a popular rental in town that belonged to one of Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, the first voluntary cavalry regiment formed during the Spanish-American War. McIntyre moved to Bisbee for the weather and the town’s rich history. She said she placed a bid on her home before even stepping foot in it.

Restoration work had already been done to her home, but she did add modern touches, such as new floors. When residents want to do an exterior renovation to a historic Bisbee home they must get a permit from the city’s Design Review Board, a process McIntyre finds effective.

“If you were going to do some major thing, knock the windows out or a major reconstruction, the city would be involved,” she explained. “But other [improvements], they just expect you to take care of it, which is why you have some pretty cool looking houses in Bisbee.”

McIntyre has no qualms with demolishing sites that have become a hazard, ushering in new homes.

“The properties that have been abandoned are just rats nests, havens for drug addicts and for wild animals, so that really does affect the ambiance of the town,” she said. “I’m on the side of let’s go ahead and take care of that and if we can’t get anyone to restore them to look halfway decent then take them down.”

Ken Budge, a design board member and former city councilman, has been a part of Bisbee’s historical preservation efforts for about 14 years.  He’s watched the city evolve, and said he’s no stranger to the “balancing act” of home preservation. His own home was a restoration project.

“It’s not that we aren’t trying to get things to come up in the 21st century,” Budge said. “But the main thing is we just want the character, the basic style, size and shape of the homes to remain and not get what I call ‘remuddled.’”

Budge said there only about 35 homes that are classified as demolished by neglect, or in a state of disrepair due to abandonment. While these homes may need to be torn down, the city doesn’t have the funds to do it.

“We don’t have the money to actually force much to happen with them,” he said. “We send out letters and say ‘you need to fix this,’ but if they don’t do anything all we can do is basically lean the property and it just sits there.”

While the number of tear down applications is low, Budge explained, it has increased lately, which sparks the community debate. Any time a major renovation plan comes to the board they notify neighbors who are within 300 square feet of the property; residents are encouraged to attend review board meetings and speak on the plans.

One of the recent properties the board considered, which sparked community backlash, is located at 29 E. Laundry Hill.

Bisbee resident Jon Sky stands outside one of his many home renovation projects.

Local neighbors, including Sky, protested a proposal to demolish the existing structure and build a large “octagon-shaped beach house style home.” The review board voted against the plan on March 7.

Richard Armstrong, owner of the contested property on Laundry Hill, said he wanted to build his dream home and enjoy Bisbee.

The house is rather unattractive and haphazard inside,” Armstrong said. “The property is also immediately adjacent to more than a dozen empty home sites on the Western slopes of Art Canyon, where unwanted older homes have been removed, leaving only moldering foundations, retaining walls and pipe.”

Armstrong explained that the house was considered non-contributing, meaning additions to the home have hidden its historic features.

“Because of the inharmonious and bizarre additions that do not contribute to the historical nature of the district, the house is not eligible for the property tax credit,” he said.

As Bisbee’s last rescue homes get bought up, the board will continue to review applications closely to ensure any plans for new constructions meet the historical aesthetic requirements.

Budge said that residents in Bisbee have a responsibility to upkeep the city’s look.

“By owning a house or something in Bisbee, you are owning part of the history and it’s your job to maintain that and help to promote that,” Budge said. “You come in and just want to tear a house down and put in something you might see somewhere else; it’s probably not going to happen.”

Sky said he will continue to soak in the Bisbee views over coffee and slug away on his various projects throughout town.

It’s giving back, and restoring old structures—it’s my passion,” Sky said. “I don’t work for money; I work to do what I love doing.”

Jamie Verwys is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at jverwys@email.arizona.edu. 

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