Plans are afoot to turn Rex Ranch from dude ranch to artists’ colony. But as the team behind the resurrection gets an extension on its deadline, the challenge is not just financial, it’s architectural. By Lee Allen.
Sometimes it takes history to make history, which is what the Save Rex Ranch group is trying to accomplish. A diverse group of volunteers is working to buy and restore the historic Southern Arizona landmark near Tubac in the hopes of turning the former dude ranch into a cultural arts center where artists, designers, scientists, and others of creative ilk could mix and mingle in a meeting of the minds.
The project to morph the structures (built in the 1880s) into artistic residences requires passion in addition to the usual – time, labor, and money. Especially money. Up for sale with no takers over the past couple of years, the original asking price of $2 million was dropped to $735,000. And that’s when Joseph Beyer stepped in.
“There aren’t many places like this left any more and this is exactly the kind of thing I always dreamed could happen,” says Joseph, who had stayed ten years ago and made frequent trips to Southern Arizona. “Places like this were built to accommodate people — and that’s what we want to do. We are going to find a way to make this happen,” says the director of digital initiatives for Sundance Institute.
The pressure is on; as of the first week of January only $40,850 of the $735,000 had been raised, mainly through crowd funding. Last month, the bank extended the deadline from December to February 14th.
Many of Beyer’s project collaborators and advisers include leaders of the arts in Arizona and California who know the value of having a place for creative thinkers and artists to do their thing. Among the collaborators are: singer Lee Anne Savage; Peggy Johnson, executive director of Tucson’s Loft Cinema; upworthy founding curator Adam Mordecai; and 30 Rock actor Jack McBrayer.
Joseph says he will work tirelessly to repurpose the historic property, and he has described its potential as “epic”. “The property has a patina of being someplace special, and it’s calling for something like this to happen — to take a historic property of this size and complexity and turn it into something dynamic and useful,” he says.
Like a desert wildfire in the dry season, this idea has taken off. The advisory board is growing with the addition of folks such as Tucson architect Corky Poster, restoration expert David Yubeta, Native American actor Jon Proudstar, and others with interest in the arts and sciences. “We have over a hundred volunteers who want to be a part of making history. And I just learned that even though the project is still in concept stage, we’ve already received 75 applications for residency,” said Beyer.
For those who need specific numbers to define worth, the 50-acre property has 13 buildings, 22 rooms and suites, 8 casitas, and amenities like fountains, gardens, and a horse stable. “The individual buildings aren’t the special part, their interrelationship is,” says Joseph.
“Some of the rooms were operating as lodging just three years ago, so there’s a lot here to work with in what we’re calling an adaptive re-use architectural project. We have some great ideas to restore the casita designed by famed Tucson architect Josias Joesler, turning it into the centerpiece of the property as a whole. We want to stabilize and preserve the 100+-year-old adobe structures. It’s not our intent to change the look and feel of the property, we’d just like to bring it off the grid in a non-disruptive fashion, adding things like solar power and internet connectivity – invisible retrofits,” says Joseph.
Los Angeles architect Anthony Laney, a volunteer adviser to the project, says some rooms are likely to be used for meetings, and short overnight stays. “I know that in the short term the dream is to simply bring back the beauty and quality of the place, to restore buildings to a level where they can be occupied and fully functional,” he says.
Adds Joseph: “All ideas are on the table. That’s the great joy of this project – no restrictions, no directives – it’s fluid and dynamic and designed to be that way. There is a power and a spirit to this place that just needs some spit and polish to bring out its best.”
Architects and preservationists will play a big part in bringing back what once was. “This place is in reasonably good shape, so the preservation part, the stabilization/adaptation/reuse efforts – the physical improvements -will be the easy part,” says architectural preservationist Corky Poster of Poster Frost Mirto. “We are our own history, and the more history we can make productive, the more we can bring our heritage forward. Buildings and properties get preserved when someone figures out a contemporary use for historic sites and structures. Until someone figures out a viable rationale in today’s world, things won’t get rehabilitated (much like the 54,000-square-feet of old adobe buildings in Camp Naco that no one can figure out a use for),” he says.
Corky, currently working on a well-thought-out restoration plan for Pima County’s 5,000-acre Canoa Ranch property, says properties need to rise to their potential. “With Rex Ranch, heritage and spirit are already built into it — it’s already there, and that’s good because you can’t create that aura.”
Adobe restorer David Yubeta is an experienced mud man who says the hand-formed earthen brick buildings on the ranch “are acting like adobe should when no eyes are on it and it suffers from neglect. We all deteriorate with age, but there aren’t a lot of things I’d worry about yet. When plaster falls off, it just looks bad, but it can be replaced. I haven’t seen anything there that was so badly lost that it made my heart sad.”
Fellow advisory board member Jon Proudstar is a Native American artist, filmmaker, and researcher who says: “Historically, Southern Arizona has been the hub of some incredible things, everything from Geronimo and Pancho Villa to Doc Holliday and Dillinger. Throughout our history, there have been seminal moments that didn’t just happen by accident. Tucson is full of brilliant human beings, mind-expanding individuals, and we’ve needed something like this to be their focal point.”
“There’s no intent to take a historic property and turn it into a modern architectural destination,” says Joseph Beyer. “We want this to be more than an art and design colony. We want creative people to come here with their creativity. There are so many things to consider, like adding an interactive sculpture exhibit to display ideas and works or a small plot to experiment with structural forms, materials, and ideas. We’re so damned excited about the variety of things that could happen here.”
Meantime, Joseph says he is hoping to negotiate a lower price. “To date, over $40,000 has arrived in small donations. An anonymous donor in Tucson gave us $15,000 to pay for all needed inspections and for the first time in over two years, the electricity is back on. Although we need to raise enough to buy the place, we’re going to win here with. We wouldn’t be doing this if we thought we’d fail,” he says.