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The Santa Catalina Apartments, 1903
The Story of the Santa Catalina Apartments

The two buildings are rectangular, identical in plan with eight rooms, four to a side. They were described as "light housekeeping" The room on the northeast corner was a community kitchen, the sink was on the south wall, the stove on the east wall, a north door from the porch so all residents could enter without going through another room. When these apartments were built, a large kitchen range was used for cooking so having a separate kitchen would be an advantage in a warm climate. At that time, many homes had a "summer kitchen" separate from the house to avoid heating the entire house. However in the winter, fire in the cook stove was a welcome source of comfortable heat.

The shared bathroom was south of the kitchen and entered from the porch on the east side. It had a zinc bath tub and pull chain oak box water closet as well as a wash basin. These up-to-date apartments were built with indoor plumbing.

The twelve-foot ceilings gave, and still give, a spacious look to the rooms. The outside wall in each room has a tall window. A transom was over outside and inside doors (during the 1990 remodeling, the transoms over inside doors were removed). This provided good air circulation as well as light in the room. Rooms had connecting doors so rooms could be rented singly or en suite. If several members of a family came, they could have adjoining rooms. Each apartment was completely furnished including bed linen, kitchen utensils and tableware. they were advertised for light housekeeping, they were rented for a month or longer; most persons stayed the winter.

If you notice in the pictures, there are several small windows along the side walls of the buildings. These were little pantry kitchens, with zinc sinks and wooden drain boards in them. Later there was also a little two burner stove and oak ice box, the top opened for a block of ice.

Persons who have moved to Tucson in the last fifty years, wonder how we managed without central heat and air conditioning. The residents of the Catalinas lived very nicely, thank you.

The buildings were planned for comfort. The wide porches provided shade from the summer sun, prevented the sun from shining on the brick walls during the summer, and kept them from heating up and radiating the heat into the building. The wooden porch did not conduct heat. The tall windows and transoms over the doors provided air circulation and were opened in the evening and closed tightly during the day.

Most persons in Tucson slept outdoors during the summer, at least into the 1940's. No one worried about safety. The population of Tucson in 1910 was 13,000 and in 1940, almost 40,000. Tucson until the 1940's was the kind of town where you rarely locked your door. Porches provided a good place to sleep because they gave some protection from summer rainstorms.

In the winter the sun is lower in the sky and shines on the porch and brick walls to provide some warmth. Also every room had a fireplace. For landscaping the privet hedge provide( privacy as well as protection from blowing dust. The hedge flourished 70 years, but could not survive without being watered. The undisturbed desert is not dusty, but when roads are cut, loose dirt blows and is unpleasant. The streets were cut down and graded, so a low concrete wall was needed by 1908. It was thirty years before the streets were paved, and curbs and sidewalk constructed.

Eight pepper trees were planted, one in front of each side of the walk in front of each building, two between the buildings and three or four in back. Pepper trees are beautiful in the proper location; however they get top heavy. The roots cannot penetrate caliche and since the apartments were well located on high ground, the ground was firm caliche. One by one I remember these beautiful trees falling during rainstorms. In 1934 one fell on my newly built rabbit hutch. The rabbits survived, the hutch did not. By that time the trees were thirty years old.

A large oleander hedge was on the west side between the end of the privet hedge and the end of the building. The front yard pepper trees were replaced by Rhus lancea (African sumac) by 1960. If I recall correctly, seeds for the first Rhus lancea were brought to the University by Homer Shantz in 1924. Shantz was not only UA President but a renowned botanist. The only two I remember in the 1930s were on the campus on the lawn in front of the Library (now Arizona State Museum, North). They have become very popular in Tucson as they are a beautiful tree with a low water requirement.

The yard around the apartments never had grass until the 1960s, when some ground was watered and a lawn was the result. From time to time residents would plant flower seeds or bulbs near the steps beside their apartment. Just north of the wash house I remember a large creosote bush, the last one left from the days when the land was undisturbed desert. But it is gone now.

It is quite remarkable that the laundry building is still standing in May 1990. It has two rooms. The north one had a north facing door. In that room were two zinc wash tubs. The community clotheslines were to the north of that building. By the 1935 my father used it for tool repair room

The room at the south end of the laundry room was entered from the west side. It was rented as a room until 1935. At that time it became a storage room for beds and mattresses. By 1930 there was a porch on the west side, the community telephone was on a front post. The porch had a dirt floor, bricked in a few years later, then enclosed for a tool storage room.

I wrote the above description May 1, 1990. On Friday, May 25, at 3 P.M. I drove down the alley just in time to see the wooden laundry building smashed into splinters, loaded into a dump truck and carried away. The apartments are being remodeled, I understood the plan was to save the 1903 laundry building. I was wrong.

The furniture in the Catalinas was golden oak, so popular at the time they were built. The chairs were pressed-back oak. Some were lightweight strong and inexpensive Thornet bentwood chairs. The label under the seat was printed "Thornet Czechoslovakia. " Each room had a piece of oak furniture that was a combination drop-front desk on one side, with shelf and mirror and whatnot/curio cabinet on the other side. Most rooms had an oak chest of drawers. The rug covering the wooden floor was machine made of an Oriental design. There were pull shades and lace curtains at the windows. The ceilings were high, and around the upper wall was molding. This was used to hang pictures. The beds had metal frames. The overall impression was clean, in good repair; pleasant but sparse.

Since the edge of the back yard was a filled-in arroyo, it was easy to have a cellar at the north west corner at the back under the west building. It was cool and pleasant there in the summer and pleasantly comfortable in the winter. It was used for paint and tool storage, also for dishes and kitchen utensils. When the Catalinas were first built, everything was furnished, including linen and silver. Later, when many more apartments were built by this same owner, all were furnished except for linen and silverware. The dishes were always all white, and inexpensive but almost as attractive as fine china.

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