The old Pima County Courthouse is an icon, sometimes not necessarily of our community. It showed up in an establishing shot on an episode of the X-Files once and was identified as the San Diego County courthouse. It also stood in as the Cochise County courthouse on the show Sheriff of Cochise back in the 1950s. Long time Tucsonans can name a friend or relative that was an extra on the 1970’s drama Petrocelli, where the building served as the courthouse for the fictional city of San Remo.
For those of us who grew up here, it has been a long-time landmark. It was built in 1929 and designed by local architect Roy Place. It was, until a few years ago, an active courthouse. Offices like the county treasurer and recorder were headquartered there. Most of our justice courts operated out of the building as well.
In 2015, the county completed a new courthouse complex on Stone and Scott, meaning that those government offices were moved out of the building. The following year, the building was gutted with a mind to keep some history in place. For example, the exterior was kept intact and Courtroom Number 1, known as the “Dillinger Courtroom,” was restored to its original size.
Tearing the building down was never an option for the county. However, there were questions about what to do with the place. Over the last few years, they have found new tenants. The University of Arizona mineral museum is now in the basement (and I’d highly recommend a visit), Visit Tucson its offices on the second floor and the first floor hosts, most appropriately, our regional visitors’ center.
Also, just west of the building, is the January 8th memorial. It’s a reflective memorial to the Tucsonans that died that day.
The work done on the building is a great example of adaptive reuse. Many of our historic buildings can be put to other uses that honor their history but remain active public spaces. It’s a great example of what the city can do with properties like those by Fort Lowell and what the private sector can do as well.
I’d like to share a story with you about Courtroom Number 1. Rose Silver served as Pima County Attorney in the 1970s, but when she started out she was one of the only female attorneys in Pima County. Needless to say, there were a lot of hurdles a woman had to jump over in those days to run a law practice.
In January of 1934, John Dillinger and his gang were in town and were found out by an astute member of the Tucson Fire Department. Dillinger, his gang and some hangers on were arraigned to much fanfare in Courtroom Number 1.
Then something unexpected happened, he got served with a lawsuit. He needed an attorney to handle it. He let it be known that he wanted the attorney to be a woman.
Silver was the only one available. She won the case and was paid $1500 plus Dillinger’s Packard. It was only a few years later that she found several firearms in a hidden compartment. In later interviews, she said that Dillinger was very respectful of her as an attorney.
“Say what you want about him, but at least he wasn’t sexist,” she said decades later.