Sunshine Mile, Welcome Diner
Preservation Magazine, Fall 2020

The Midcentury Charms of Tucson, Arizona's Sunshine Mile

  • More: Preservation Magazine
  • By: Reed Karaim
  • Photography: GMVargas/Jude Ignacio and Gerardine Vargas/Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation

As America struggles through the confusion and pain of 2020, it can be hard to remember there was a time when our country advertised its faith in the future in bright, Day-Glo colors and whimsical, exuberant design. Tucson, Arizona’s “Sunshine Mile,” a commercial strip containing dozens of Midcentury Modern buildings that was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in May, reflects the spirit of those days. It embodies the quintessentially American architecture that sprang up, particularly in the Southwest, in the middle of the 20th century.

Sunshine Mile, Kelly Building

The Kelly Building (1964), designed by Nicholas Sakellar.

Today, the city sprawls much farther east, but Demion Clinco, CEO of the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation, notes that when the Sunshine Mile was being developed in the 1940s and ’50s, “it was one of the first shopping centers east of downtown, in the emerging suburbs.” The retail outlets and commercial strip developments—with their flat roofs, glass fronts, and Modernist design—represented a small, growing city looking to the future. “Tucson was really trying to shape itself into this idea of a modern desert city, trying to shrug off the vestiges of the Old West and embrace this new era,” says Clinco.

The Sunshine Mile runs along Tucson’s Broadway Boulevard, kicking off from the west with the Welcome Diner (shown at top), a sterling example of Googie architecture. This futuristic, slightly kitschy midcentury style, popular for motels and gas stations, was influenced by the nation’s emerging car culture and fascination with the Space Age. The asymmetrical roof, neon counter lighting, and wall of glass in architect Ronald Bergquist’s design would have been right at home in the classic movie American Graffiti, set in the early 1960s.

Cruising down Broadway takes you past several other notable Midcentury Modern structures, including the Haas Building (1957) by architect Anne Rysdale and the Kelly Building (1964) by architect Nicholas Sakellar. Valley National Bank (now a Chase Bank branch), completed in 1971, marks the Mile’s eastern edge. The sinuous, sculptural building, with Don Smith of Friedman and Jobusch, Architects and Engineers, as lead designer, is perhaps the most recognized work by this prominent Tucson firm.

Sunshine Mile, Valley National Bank Branch

Valley National Bank (1971), now a Chase Bank branch, designed by Don Smith of Friedman and Jobusch, Architects and Engineers.

By the 1970s, Tucson was well on its way to becoming today’s city of more than half a million people, where east-west traffic congestion has long been a concern. A project now underway to widen Broadway Boulevard originally threatened many of the buildings along the Sunshine Mile. The local preservation community rallied, working with the city and regional transportation authority starting in 2011 to reduce the planned widening from eight lanes to six, helping to preserve the Mile’s historic character.

Clinco sees the effort as a model for Tucson going forward. “I think this could really become the catalyst for major revitalizations of significant buildings and streetscapes,” he says. “We have this rich 20th-century heritage, and it’s something that we should celebrate. It’s classic Americana.”

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Reed Karaim, who grew up in North Dakota, is a freelance writer now living in Tucson, Ariz. His work has appeared in Smithsonian, The Washington Post, The American Scholar, Architect, and U.S. News and World Report, among others.

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