Revisit Tucson's History at Old Town Artisans

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Desiree Guerrero | The Daily Wildcat Old Town Artisans is located in downtown Tucson, on the original site of the historic El Presidio San Agustin del Tucson. Many areas of the plaza have original roofing and walls from 1888, when the property was purchased.

In old adobe, beneath saguaro rib ceilings covered in twinkling lights and lush plants, Old Town Artisans’ aesthetic ambiance makes this historic building a go-to spot for both Tucsonans and tourists looking to shop until they drop.

Made up of seven shops, a restaurant, a pub and a market, all housed in a Spanish-style courtyard, Old Town Artisans offers a unique and varied experience for all its customers.

“It’s the home of the oldest most continually occupied buildings in the state of Arizona, so just being able to keep that history alive and keep commerce going in this area is an honor for all of us,” said Jo Schneider, the owner of La Cocina Restaurant and Cantina. “It makes it special because this is really where history started.”

Old Town Artisans is located at 201 N. Court Ave. in one of the oldest buildings in Tucson, dating back to 1775.

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According to their website, Old Town Artisans is resting on the site of El Presidio San Augustín del Tucsón, a fort built by the Spanish. The current block that Old Town Artisans has staked claim to happened to be where the stables area once was.

Wind chimes from local organization Ben's Bells hang inside one of the shops in Old Town Artisans. Local handmade items like these are available for visitors to purchase.

“It’s one of the most historic places that’s left in this city,” said Mark Benko, the manager of Art House Centro. “We are on the grounds of the original presidio. The restaurant on the courtyard, La Cocina, is actually where the stables used to be at the presidio.”

In addition to its rich history, the stores that make up Old Town Artisans offer shoppers a wide variety of options.

One of the shops, Art House Centro, has been open for six years. Their mission is to provide affordable art to the Tucson community, making it perfect for UA students on a budget.

“[When we] opened the shop, our theme was affordable art for you, your home and garden,” Benko said. “We have a lot of nice things that are affordable for dorm rooms.”

For curators of vintage finds and one-of-a-kind treasures, Gypsy Emporium is the place to go. Debbie Forrest, the co-owner of the shop, travels as far as the east coast to find quirky curios, including monkey skulls and woman-shaped chairs.

“This is Old Town Artisans,” Forrest said. “We fit in perfectly with our old stuff.”

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In the center of the Old Town Artisans plaza is a stage for live music, pond, and plenty of seating. Shops, eateries and pubs surround the main plaza area.

Nine years ago, inspired by the beauty of Old Town Artisans, Schneider opened the outdoor restaurant La Cocina. La Cocina has live music every night and allows its diners to have dinner beneath twinkling lights — apparently making it a great place for a first date.

“We’re a popular place to go for a date,” Schneider said. “It’s all lit up with twinkle lights and it’s pretty romantic, so we seem to get a lot of first dates.”

Old Town Artisans also includes a record shop, a tattoo parlor, a vintage clothing shop and a Native American arts store.

“It’s just a great place to work,” Benko said. “We have a great bunch of people who work here. All the shopkeepers are really friendly and we all get along. It has a really nice vibe and it’s a lot of fun here.”

La Cocina restaurant inside Old Town Artisans, has a variety of food and drinks. The fried artichoke platter is one of the many appetizers they offer.

While they do see some University of Arizona students come by, Schneider said that Old Town Artisans has a bigger tourist population. Nonetheless, the shop owners encourage students and community members to stop by and see a piece of Tucson history.

“There are a lot more tourists than Tucson people,” Forrest said. “There [have] been people who have lived here for over 20 years and they never knew this place existed, so it would be for good for Tucson people to come see this historic place.”

Benko, Forrest and Schneider said they believe that Old Town Artisans’ history is what makes it stand out from all of the other stores located in Tucson. Schneider said that she is proud to continue to pay homage to Tucson’s past.

“One of the most historic sections of Tucson is right here,” Schneider said. “So having this outdoor restaurant with a stage, honoring our local musicians and honoring the history of Tucson is a privilege every day.” 


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