Homey Or Homely? What To Do With Historic Bisbee's Dilapidated Buildings
Founded in 1880, the former mining town of Bisbee is older than the state itself.
I can walk its tangle of narrow streets and stairs for hours, delighting in its old homes and businesses built basically on top of one another. I love them all, the lived-in, the fancy and even the ramshackle and abandoned.
But, then again, I don’t live there.
During a recent meeting of the Bisbee Design Review Board, many people spoke in favor of tearing down a long-vacant, historic house on Clawson Avenue, right near the heart of downtown.
One woman called it an “eyesore.” Another spoke of a local ghost group holding séances there and of squatters smoking cigarettes inside. The home’s new owner explained the copious amounts of money it would take to fix it up.
“And it has, no redeeming value," said a man who lives nearby.
The demolition request was denied.
Bisbee Public Works Director Andy Haratyk did not make the call about the house on Clawson Avenue. He’s not even on the board. But he understands the intense emotions that swirl around these dilapidated structures.
“We’re doing everything we can not to demolish or tear down an old house,” he said.
The city estimates there are about 60 or so of these dying buildings tucked into Bisbee’s tight canyon and outlying areas. They're fire hazards and ripe for trespassing. And in the most extreme cases, Haratyk said, it would be better to tear the homes down than have them fall to the ground.
"Every time we lose an old building, another little chink in our armor of who we are is pulled away, so that’s not what we want to do," he said.
But what to do?
So many of these homes have been going to seed for decades. Building Inspector Joe Ward explained that the owners have often passed away, and their loved ones don’t know what to do with the properties.
“And the families have a nostalgic hold on these houses, usually, and they don’t have the money to fix it up, but they don’t have the heart to sell it,” he said.
For a long time, things were at a stalemate, with utilities and property taxes going unpaid. But now, Ward said, the city is starting to step in – and trying to get the property owners to step up.
“Sometimes they need a little bit of a coaxing,” he said.
The city council has put $10,000 toward that coaxing – looking up titles, sending letters, taking people to court, if need be. The city could even seize the properties. But what everyone seems to want is just for people to put love into these buildings.
The cycle of abandonment and rebirth is actually built into the fabric of Bisbee.
Tom Mosier, a local who runs a tour company here, has seen it first-hand. He said that many homes were abandoned in the ’60s and ’70s, as the mines slowed down.
“And that’s why they went to Hell in a handbasket,” he said.
But then people started to buy up those homes for cheap.
“And then they brought some hippies along, and of course they worked for a good hamburger a day and a couple of joints,” he said. “And you get a lot of work out of them for nothing.”
And that, Mosier said, is how Bisbee was rebuilt. It’s still being rebuilt – now by the kids of those hippies and by snowbirds and artists.
One man is spending more than $100,000 to trick out an old convent, complete with granite countertops. Another guy is spending only $10,000 to make livable a place with no insulation or foundation.
Michael McPartlin is heartened by how people are rehabbing these homes in all different ways – and at all different price points.
“So you’ve got lots of creative people who see the possibility in these buildings,” he said.
That’s probably why it can be hard to get permission to demolish one.
McPartlin is on the design review board, and voted against tearing down the home on Clawson Avenue.
Even though many of these old places are rough, he’s impressed that they’ve managed to stay standing this long.
“I think it’s a testament to actually how durable many of these buildings are, and how, with a little ingenuity and thoughtfulness, how they can readily be brought back to life," McPartlinsaid.
As he was saying that, he was standing in front of one. Small and super plain, it has plywood randomly nailed to its exterior and a thin, tin roof. The words “Keep Out” are spray painted on the concrete stairs leading up to it. But McPartlin believes this place can be saved. He said its new owner keeps working away on this little property that overlooks the mountains and twinkly lights of downtown.
“It’s a beautiful location,” he said, into the night air, before I cut in.
“It has the view,” I said. “You just have to have the vision.”
“And he does,” McPartlin replied, smiling.
He hopes many others will have that vision, too.