John Driggs has led the effort to restore Tovrea Castle and save the land around it from developers.
Paolo Vescia

Saving History

The historic Phoenix Union High School buildings and Tovrea Castle didn't make the cut to receive money from the upcoming bond election when citizens' committees drew up a list of projects to put before voters.

But thanks to last-minute action by the Phoenix City Council, millions of dollars of bond money could still go to both those causes if Proposition 4, the historic preservation proposal, passes.

At a November 28 city council meeting to approve the final bond committee recommendations, councilman Phil Gordon added a couple of caveats.

The council approved a plan that would allocate $4.5 million of historic preservation money to buying some of the remaining property surrounding Tovrea Castle. And the council directed staff to meet with PUHS property owner Jim Kaufman to explore various ways to save the four remaining buildings at Seventh Street and Van Buren. That could include using some of the $12 million in bond money earmarked for historic preservation.

Kaufman, a downtown developer who purchased the school site in 1984, had filed demolition permits for the historic properties in an effort to recoup his investment in them.

When a one-year waiting period expired January 6, there was nothing legally stopping him from tearing down the stately buildings that were once the heart of Phoenix's first public high school.

But Kaufman says meetings with city representatives after that November council decision and a heartfelt letter from alumni association president Don Jackson convinced him to wait.

Kaufman, who hopes to preserve the buildings -- he originally bought them for that purpose -- says he will resume negotiations with the city after the bond election.

Jackson says the alumni group has promised to raise $500,000 to help save the buildings and will seek any other grants that might be appropriate. He says an alumnus who is an executive at the Smithsonian Institution still wants to pursue placing some of that institution's national treasures in a PUHS building.

John Driggs, the former Phoenix mayor who has led the effort to save the land around Tovrea Castle, is grateful the council stepped in.

"It was ironic, having gone through the whole subcommittee process, where nothing was allocated," he says.

Driggs says the money would be enough to save some -- but not all -- of the Tovrea land from development. And, he says, time is of the essence. One parcel was sold recently and another one is being considered for purchase, he says.

He fears that the decision to place the new football stadium not far from the castle property will drive up land prices and make the spot even more attractive to developers.

Even if the bond proposal passes, it would take some time for the city to have the money to purchase the land. So Driggs has been talking to a land conservation group about fronting the money so that the property can be saved as soon as possible.


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