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Preservationists, U of A spar over historic chapel’s future

by Staff

Preservationists claim the University of Arizona is breaking state law by “harvesting” parts of a historic chapel on campus, but the UA says the change will better highlight the site’s artwork. 

The Soleri Chapel, completed in 1986 by Paolo Soleri, a famed Italian architect and protege of Frank Lloyd Wright, is set to be taken apart and moved from the Arizona Cancer Center and into a “meditation hallway” at the university’s new Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine. The chapel was originally constructed in memory of Soleri’s wife, who died of cancer.

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Leaders of multiple historic preservation foundations, including the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation, say the UA has ignored pleas, “neglected to engage with stakeholders, and failed to consult with the Arizona State Historic Preservation Office,” as required by ARS 41-864. 

The state law the groups are citing mandates that “the state historic preservation officer has 30 working days in which to review and comment on any plans of a state agency which involve property which is included or may qualify for inclusion on the Arizona register of historic places.” 

The chapel should be considered an art piece, said Demion Clinco, president of the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation. The UA is in effect trying to cut a painting in half to use as decoration, which is unacceptable, he said, adding that the aspects of the space need to remain in one common place.

But university spokeswoman Pam Scott said the chapel’s current location became a “research and administrative office space and is no longer open to the public.”

Because of that, the university wants to move some of the chapel to “highlight Mr. Soleri’s works in a new meditation room, where they will be more accessible,” she wrote in a statement to the Arizona Daily Star.

Scott also wrote that the decision was made “with support from and in close consultation with The Cosanti Foundation,” established by Soleri in 1965. The university plans to move the chapel’s decorative bells, wall sculpture and five ceiling panels to the new space.

In its own statement to the Star, the board of directors for The Cosanti Foundation said it “would prefer that Soleri’s original work remain intact in line with its original intention,” but acknowledged that “the chapel’s original location will no longer be accessible to the general public.”

Because of this, the board stated, the new installation is an “acceptable alternative to ensure the work can continue to be enjoyed by future generations.”

However, “The Soleri Chapel is a handmade, thoughtful, original work of art/architecture and we are sorry that the university could not find a way to plan around the sacred space it embodies, rather than cover it over with private offices,” the board said. 

Importance, splendor cited

The Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation and the Arizona Preservation Foundation say the university has not consulted with the correct state officers and therefore should not be allowed to move forward with the project.

On Dec. 18, the Tucson Pima County Historical Commission sent a letter to UA President Robert C. Robbins to inform him the commission voted unanimously to advocate for preservation of the chapel.

“The planners for the new center failed to contact the School of Architecture or the University Office of Historic Preservation before proceeding with their design,” the letter states. “The university failed to follow the legal imperative of Arizona Revised Statue 41-864 which emphasizes the responsibility of state entities such as the University of Arizona to give primary consideration to preservation measures during the alteration or relocation of historic resources.”

The chapel falls under the National Register Criterion C and the Criteria Consideration G, which are both national statuses that mark the “exceptional” historical importance and splendor of a space, the commission says.

Soleri, 1919-2013, moved from Italy to the U.S. in 1947 to collaborate with Wright, including at Taliesin West in Scottsdale, and is known in part for creating the futuristic, experimental community of Arcosanti north of Phoenix. 

At the UA Cancer Center, “Soleri’s innovative earth casting technique was employed to create the chapel’s barrel-vaulted ceiling,” the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation says, adding that the chapel also features a ceiling fresco, a modernist altar, stained glass and hand-cast bronze bells.

UA “will preserve the space digitally”

UA spokeswoman Scott said that before the relocation begins, “the university will document the Soleri works in the former chapel as they currently exist, including the history of the artist and the art.

“The university will preserve the space digitally by creating an interactive 360-degree tour, in line with a recommendation made by our Public Art Advisory Committee,” she said. 

The Cosanti Foundation board said it understands that the work was commissioned by the UA and is “wholly owned by them.”

“Members of the Cosanti Foundation have toured the proposed site for its relocation and evaluated the new space for the panels and bell assembly from the original chapel,” it said. 

The board also wrote that it understands the position of the preservationists, however.

Called “tone deaf and myopic” 

Clinco, the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation president, rejected the UA’s reasoning for the move.

In an interview with the Star, Clinco said the UA first informed the group about a potential move in 2019, just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

“We received a communication from the UA that said they were looking at potentially relocating the chapel to a place that would have more public access, and we immediately responded and said we thought that would be a very wise and prudent choice,” he said.

The project came to a halt during the pandemic, Clinco said, and the foundation was only made aware that it was moving forward in October, when the group was told the project was already underway.

“We were sent renderings which showed that it wasn’t really a relocation of the space,” Clinco said. “It was sort of a harvesting of design elements. It was really like a dismantling of this really remarkable architectural space, reusing elements in a decorative way that have nothing to do with the original architectural consumption.”

Clinco said it was “disturbing” as well as “tone deaf and myopic” that the university did not have a formal meeting with the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation.

“It’s really the spatial configuration, and how all these pieces fit together, that really creates something remarkably special that is worthy of consternation,” he said of the chapel. “And the fact is that all of that is (being) completely ignored.”

The park, operated by SculptureTucson, currently has 22 large-scale works on display created by mostly local artists. Read more about it at Video by the Gerald M. Gay/Arizona Daily Star

Gerald M. Gay

Reporter Ellie Wolfe covers higher education for the Arizona Daily Star and Contact: [email protected]

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