Few things unite a community like historic buildings.
Churches, schools, and other public structures that withstand the test of time honor the generations of pioneers and leaders who tied their fortunes to the future of the community. Tombstone has the Birdcage Theater, Willcox has the former railroad depot, which is now City Hall, and Douglas boasts the Gadsden Hotel, just to name a few.
Three historic buildings in Bisbee were in the news last week, signaling changes in the local landscape. City officials are working with contractors on the demolition of the former City Hall in the Warren district and the council quickly rezoned the old high school in the Old Bisbee district to speed efforts sell the building. The 1918 Hillcrest Apartments, originally built as a hospital for the Calumet and Arizona Mining Co. and converted into apartments in 1930, has now been taken over by the city.
Firefighters representing eight departments responded to the alarm on Oct. 11, 2017, when the two-story City Hall caught fire. Police were alerted about 1 a.m. when a 911 caller reported heavy smoke emanating from the building. After a lengthy investigation directed by the Cochise County Sheriff’s Department, with help from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, it was determined that exposed electrical wiring probably started the blaze.
Bisbee has managed the catastrophe admirably. The city relocated vital government functions three times; moving into county facilities on Melody Lane immediately after the fire, moving a second time to a building opposite the county waste removal site, and a third time to current location in the Lowell district. Residents adapted to the temporary locations and the business of providing public services, managing revenues and administering local government has continued uninterrupted for the past four years. Surviving the destruction of City Hall, including the loss of records, computers, archives, and equipment is nothing less than a remarkable accomplishment for a small city.
Now residents can look forward to the resurrection of a new building at the original location in Warren. We’ll soon be telling a younger generation of that history, relating that the structure was built by a mining company in 1909, was destroyed by fire in 2017, and later restored to prominence when the “new” building is completed.
The fate of the old high school represents a new chapter for a building that is, in many ways, an anchor for the city’s main business district.
Constructed in 1914 and surviving a devastating fire five years later, the unique four-story structure has served as the location of numerous county offices until just recently. The building was built on a mountain and designed to give each of the four floors ground-level access, which earned it recognition in the nationally known publication Ripley’s Believe It or Not.
Old high schools are usually tombs of memorable experiences for residents who attended classes, performed and staged public events and walked the hallways with fellow students.
Its future could be exciting, with the promise of a mix of unique retail outlets, a public venue for entertainment, conveniently located housing, or whatever a real estate developer can dream.
The city hopes to attract a developer for badly needed affordable housing in the historic Hillcrest Apartments.
No matter what the future brings, the continued existence and operation of these historic buildings is good news for the future of Bisbee and a tribute to the city’s fascinating past.