From the Arizona Capitol Times (, 2003

Saving Ajo's Curley School
Landmark May See New Life As Studios, Home For Artists

by Bill Coates
Arizona Capitol Times correspondent

Old School: The Curley School building, built in 1919, is an imposing stucco-on-block building up the street from the Ajo town plaza. The complex, including later structures added for elementary grades, encompasses about 100,000 square feet. The last Curley High School class graduated in 1956, though the grade school kept its doors open until 1991. photo by bill coates

Ajo boasts an open pit big enough to hold an asteroid. For more than half a century, miners dug into the pit and hauled out ore to be made into copper.  Until mining ceased in the 1980s, Ajo was a blue-collar town populated by working class heroes.

But that's old Ajo.

New Ajo, if all goes according to plan, will be home to artists and artisans, mostly mining their own creativity.  The plan in question seeks to build an arts community with the promise of affordable housing and studio space.  It's also a plan to save what many regard as one of old Ajo's finest landmarks, the Curley School, an imposing stucco-on-block building up the street from the town plaza.  The complex, including later structures added for elementary grades, encompasses about 100,000 square feet.

It no longer houses students.  The aging classrooms just became too expensive to maintain.  Ajo children now attend the newer Ajo School, opposite the plaza from Curley School.  The last Curley High School class graduated in 1956, though the grade school kept its doors open until 1991.

The Curley campus, since then, has sat largely unused.  A pair of out-of-state entrepreneurs did make a go at converting part of the school into shops and offices.  But that project never got off the ground and the prospects for Curley looked bleak, until community leaders like Tracy Taft and Terry Gonzales came up with the idea of turning the school into an art colony.  Artists would have affordable family housing and studio space.  The school, a major part of Ajo's character, would be preserved.

"Imagine that town square without the Curley School above it," Ms. Taft says.

She and Mr. Gonzales are not just people with big ideas and no backing.  The town has shown broad support for the preservation effort, known as the Curley School Project, she says.  Day-to-day management is in the hands of the International Sonoran Desert Alliance, or ISDA, a nonprofit group promoting cross-border cultural exchange programs and environmental protection in western Pima County, Sonora, Mexico, and the Tohono O'odham Indian nation.

ISDA, in turn, brought in Minneapolis-based Artspace Projects as a partner in the Curley School renovation.

The nonprofit Artspace specializes in creating and managing affordable housing for artists.  It started small in 1979 and now administers projects running into the tens of millions of dollars.

Ms. Taft, ISDA's executive director, once worked as a volunteer for Artspace in Maryland.  She helped to interest Artspace in the Curley School Project and arranged for Artspace officials to tour the Curley School in late 2001.  Among the questions they had, says Teri Deaver, Artspace project manager: "Does it have a lot of natural light and does it have high enough ceilings?"

With Curley School, built in 1919, the answer was yes.

Mr. Gonzales and Ms. Taft can appreciate an artist's need for light and room to work.  They are artists themselves.  A painter, Mr. Gonzales moved to Ajo with his wife about five years ago from Idaho, having left behind a 9-to-5 job as a title and escrow officer.  Ms. Taft, a glass artisan, moved to Ajo permanently in 2000, though she has owned a house in town since 1992.  Both keep offices at the old Curley school.  Mr. Gonzales is the ISDA Curley School Project manager.  His desk sits in the corner of a spacious classroom.  He uses the room's the original slate chalkboard to draw time lines marking steps toward completion of the project.

As many as 45 units for live-in artists are on the drawing board.  If all goes as planned, tenants could begin moving in as early as spring of 2007.  They could include painters and sculptors, as well as a few writers, dancers and actors.

Hope for an Economic Ripple

With an artist colony, Mr. Gonzales sees an economic ripple effect.

"It spills out into the community . . . developing the galleries, the coffee shops, the bookstores, the restaurants," he says.

The customer base, he adds, comes ready-made.  Ajo sits on Highway 85, some 40 miles south of Gila Bend and 40 miles from the Mexican border.  More than a million people a year travel through the unincorporated town of 4,000 on the way to Rocky Point, Mexico, or Organ Pipe National Monument, Mr. Gonzales says.

"We just need to figure out how to stop them," he adds.

If the arts and crafts are good, that might be reason enough.  But developing housing to bring in the artists requires substantial capital.

Turning Curley School's classrooms into apartments could take from $10 million to $12 million, Mr. Gonzales says.

First, there are all the attendant hazards in a building that old.  Asbestos, lead paint and mold are present and have to be removed.  An underground storage tank once used for fuel has to be cleaned up.  The electrical and plumbing systems are outdated.  And, as the school was built well before the age of personal computers, there are too few electrical outlets.

"The standards that are used here are 50, 60 years old," Mr. Gonzales says.  "You're looking at $750,000 to a million dollars just to put electricity in here, to bring it up to date."

During a tour, Mr. Gonzales shows a visitor places that haven't well stood the test of time.  Walls in the cafeteria are falling apart.  The playground for the grade school is overgrown with weeds and grass and littered with fallen equipment.  Vandals have broken the windows.

Some Spaces Would Be Open to Public

But the treasures found in the architecture and materials more than make up for the shortcomings, he says.  In some classrooms, the high and wide windows still sport the original glass.  The one-time school library has shelves built around a fireplace.  Plans are to restore it as a library for residents.  Hardwood paneling makes the principal's office look like the inner sanctum of a law firm.  Mr. Gonzales says much of the school has the same paneling, though it has been painted.

In the gymnasium and auditorium, roofs sit on exposed beams of solid redwood.  The cafeteria's redwood trestle is hidden by ceiling tiles, though they would torn down in any renovation.  A stone arch marks the gymnasium's entry from the street.  Plans call for making these spaces open to the public.  The cafeteria would house culinary-arts classes for high school students and adults.  The gym would be made into a wellness center, and the auditorium a commercial theater.

Once a Monument to Education

The school's character, however, is found out front.  Here, the two-story building presents itself to the square below as a monument to education.  The entry's massive doors opening out to a courtyard with a flagpole are framed by stonework engraved with the school's name.

Curley School was not built on the cheap, Mr. Gonzales adds.

It was a part of what could be called Arizona's first master-planned community.  The master planner, in this case, was John Greenway, owner the New Cornelia Copper Co., which began full-scale operations in Ajo around 1917.  (Phelps-Dodge bought the New Cornelia mine in 1931).  Mr. Greenway laid out streets and housing in keeping with the then-popular City Beautiful movement.  Everything had its place, according to the tenets of the time.  Businesses were kept apart from houses.  In housing, whites were kept apart from Indian and Mexican mine workers.  Building design, including Curley School, the Catholic Church, and Mr. Greenway's own mansion, followed a style known as Spanish colonial revival.  Tiled roofs and arches were prominent.

Mr. Greenway's City Beautiful plans took shape with the help of his mine superintendent Michael Curley, the school's namesake.

The school's initial construction topped $175,000, big money for the time.  Copper paid for it.

Plans to pay for the Curley School Project today rest largely on public financing - of one sort or another.  Just for preliminary planning - known as pre-development - the project has raised and spent more than a half-million dollars.  Funding has included $550,000 in grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, a $120,000 Pima County community development block grant, $5,000 from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and $5,000 from a Tucson neighborhood- improvement consortium.

The money has gone for site planning, architectural design, feasibility studies, marketing surveys, environmental assessment (on matters like asbestos) and a survey of plumbing, wiring and structural needs.

Renovation will involve a good deal of historical preservation.

The project hopes to offset some of cost with a historical preservation tax credit, which is like money in the bank to an outside developer.  The state Historical Preservation Office and the National Park Service would oversee the work, Mr. Gonzales says.  If they deem the proposed renovation undermines the school's historic character, the tax credit could be denied.

"You have to dance to their tune," Mr. Gonzales says.

But the big money for construction would come by way of a federal tax credit for low-income housing.

"The tax credit application costs $3,500 just to file it," Mr. Gonzales says.  "You compete with 40 other projects in the state of Arizona, for 20 awards."

He plans to file the Curley School application next March.

Simply put, the tax credits provide private developers with financing to construct affordable housing.  The developer becomes a limited partner.

The Curley School Project is seeking credits worth nearly $7 million over a 10-year period.  Other proposed funding includes government bonds, loans and grants, as well as charitable contributions.

It adds up to a lot of money for low-rent housing, and low rents fit right in with the mission of Artspace - along with making sure artists don't fall prey to the "SoHo Syndrome." The term comes from the experience of artists in New York City.  In SoHo, artists were undone by their own success, after moving into the area and fixing up substandard housing.  Well-heeled types followed and artists soon found themselves priced out of a market they helped to create.  When contracting with partners like ISDA, Artspace secures a guarantee that the rents will remain low.

The tax credit stipulations are part of that guarantee.  The rents must be tied to income.  For example, an artist making 30 per cent of the Ajo area median income would pay no more than $265 a month for a 750- to 800-square-foot studio apartment, Mr. Gonzales says.  For an artist making half the average area income, rent would go up to about $440.

Drawing Artists

Whether it's the price, location or the mild winter weather, artists like the idea of living and working in Ajo, according to an online poll commissioned by Artspace and ISDA.  About half the 500 artists surveyed responded favorably to living in the proposed Curley School Project.  "For every unit, we have six people standing in line," Mr. Gonzales says.

That includes artists from the Tohono O'odham nation.

"We've had 27 of the native American artists express an interest in being residents of the Curley School Project," Ms. Taft says.

That would fit in with ISDA's mission of cultural exchange.  The Curley project could well include artists from Mexico as well, Ms. Taft says.

Most of artists surveyed already lived in Arizona.  But Ms. Taft believes many from the frozen north - including Minnesota and Montana - would welcome the chance to live in Ajo.

The town has much to offer: remote desert, a bowling alley, a nine-hole golf course and a smattering of neighbors, many of them artists.

"It's ideal," Mr. Gonzales says.  It's why he moved here.

"Wide-open spaces . . . stunning beauty, eclectic people," he says.