A little museum has been telling a big story about Tucson’s roots, urban renewal and the oldest Mexican-American barrio in Arizona.
But no more. La Pilita Museum now is closed after 15 years.
Founders and directors Joan Daniels and Carol Cribbet-Bell are packing up the memories housed at the 1940s building at 420 S. Main Ave. in downtown Tucson.
Grants became more competitive in the economic downturn. Then grants started to dry up altogether “and little cultural house museums such as ours began to suffer,” Cribbet-Bell said.
Sometimes she and Daniels didn’t take paychecks as they tried to raise money to keep the museum going.
About 6,000 tourists visited each year, and the museum had a membership of about 125. After a year of discussions with La Pilita Foundation’s Board of Directors, the museum officially closed Feb.1.
When Daniels and Cribbet-Bell took on the building as a community service project for Carrillo school children, it had been vacant for about a decade.
It had no roof, no plumbing, no heating or cooling, and “there was food in the refrigerator from 10 years before,” Cribbet-Bell said. “It was pretty daunting.”
Through a series of grants, the two former teachers renovated the property and started a museum and a free after-school program. It grew into a nonprofit association.
For several years, third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students learned about the neighborhood’s place in Tucson history, collected oral histories, gave tours of the museum and operated the gift shop.
The program brought to life language arts, history, art and archaeology for the children. They even wrote books about the barrio’s history and folklore.
“This neighborhood was in huge transition, and those stories were being lost,” Daniels said.
At the site are the original water source for Tucson and what was long ago Tucson’s main street. The surrounding barrio was the site of the first airplane ride in Tucson and the first movie in Tucson.
It’s also the place where the urban-renewal movement of the 1970s that demolished so much of the barrio stopped.
El Tiradito shrine next door is on the National Register of Historic Places, so it couldn’t be touched by developers.
The museum’s main exhibit included maps of what the barrio looked like before and after.
Now downtown is seeing a new wave of development, but La Pilita won’t tell that chapter of Tucson’s story and is itself about to become part of the barrio’s lost history.
“Downtown is entertainment and it’s all this renewal, and that’s good, but you’ve got to balance that,” Daniels said. “Tucson is trying to grow up, but it’s got really interesting roots.”
The museum’s collections have been parceled out to the Sosa-Carrillo-Fremont House, the Arizona Historical Society and the University of Arizona’s Special Collections Library.
What’s next for the downtown space is unclear.
The city owns the building and had been leasing it to the foundation for $1 a year. But the City Council changed its policy on leases to civic groups, and the next occupant of the building will have to pay 25 percent of the market rate for the building, said parks and recreation administrator Peg Weber. Weber said she wants to see a nonprofit with a historical or educational mission take over the building.
It’s sad to see the museum go, she added.
“These people have done a wonderful thing for the youth in the neighborhood and they’ve done some extraordinary things and had great exhibits.”
At least one group, Old Pueblo Archaeology Center, is in talks with the city about the space.
The group would like to use it as headquarters for education and outreach programs and would install its simulated archaeological dig on the property, said Executive Director Allen Dart. The space is appealing because of its history, he said.
La Pilita museum had support over the years from the city, the county, Tucson Unified School District, the Community Foundation of Southern Arizona, the Southwestern Foundation, the Walnut Foundation, the Arizona Humanities Council and the Arizona Commission on the Arts.