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Presidio San Agustín del Tucson Comes to Life by Gayle Hartmann, Tucson Presidio Trust for Historic Preservation

As part of the Rio Nuevo project’s attempt to restore a sense of place and a sense of history to Tucson’s downtown, the northeast corner of the Presidio San Agustín del Tucson has been reconstructed, opening in May 2007. This reconstruction took great pains to be as authentic as possible. Archaeological excavations revealed the exact locations of the walls and watchtower as well as telling us the size and shape of the adobe bricks that were used in the construction. Only a corner of the presidio could be reconstructed, the remainder lying under modern streets and buildings including the Pima County Courthouse and the Tucson City Hall. Thus, included in the reconstruction is a wonderful mural that gives the viewer the sense of looking south into the remainder of the presidio.

Hector Soza drills soldados at the Presidio 
San Agustin del Tucson. Photo courtesy of Richard Whitmer.

The original presidio, or walled adobe fortress, was established by the Spanish military in 1775 with construction starting in 1776. The fort consisted of 10-foot high adobe walls and two 20-foot high adobe towers on the northeast and southwest corners. It was about 11 acres in size, making it the largest presidio in what is now the southwestern United States. 

This presidio was the first structure built by Europeans on the east side of the Santa Cruz River. The only other European-built structures in the Tucson area in the late 1700s were the original San Xavier Mission (much smaller and less imposing than the current mission) and a small chapel on the west side of the Santa Cruz River at the foot of Sentinel Peak (now called “A” Mountain). At that time, southern Arizona was at the northern frontier of the Spanish empire, and the presidio and missions represented the Spanish attempt to bring military order to the region as well as to “save the souls” of the Native Americans who already lived here.

Whatever we may now think of the Spanish motives, the reconstructed presidio gives us a glimpse into a lifeway that is very different from most American cities. The visitor can see the tiny room that represents the home of a military family, the simple barracks where the soldiers lived, the munitions room, and the presidio warehouse where foods and other goods were stored. In addition, a Sonoran row house from the late 1800s has been restored as part of the presidio complex. It also provides a view into Tucson’s unique past.

Dante Sandoval stands guard over 
the cannon on the torreon. Photo 
courtesy of Richard Whitmer.

The presidio is located on the corner of Church and Washington Streets in downtown Tucson and is open Wednesday-Sunday, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (It is closed Monday and Tuesday). Admission is free. On weekdays metered parking is available on nearby streets; parking is free on weekends. Stop by! It’s worth a visit.

To learn more, visit the Tucson Presidio Trust for Historic Preservation.