When architect Arthur T Brown arrived to Tucson in 1936, he had nearly a decade of professional experience be- hind him. Tucson then was a small town in the Sonoran Desert but it held promise for the young Midwestern architect. Brown brought with him self-reliance, determination, and a propensity to invent solutions for modern architectural problems, from prefabricated housing and paraboloid roof structures to “solar walls,” that worked well in Tucson’s dry, sun-drenched climate.
Born and raised in Missouri, Brown first studied Chemistry at Tarkio College but then sought a degree in architecture at Ohio State University, graduating in 1927. Between 1927 and 1934, Brown worked as a draftsman for Chicago architects David Bjork, Vallance Brown, and finally David Adler before joining the Century of Progress Architectural Gadget Design Department for a year. It was these varied experiences, few opportunities in Chicago for professional advancement, and his willingness for adventure that led him to move his career and young family to the Southwest. Brown continued to work for and with others in Arizona, most notably Richard Morse of Tucson, but by 1942 he was on his own.
Housing was the bread and butter of his architectural practice. During and shortly after World War II, Brown tinkered with many ideas, including affordable housing. He rst developed the pre-fabricated modular “four-cyl- inder” houses (now demolished) that were celebrated in Architectural Forum in 1943 for their weight and ease of construction. He later designed veterans housing for the Sundt Construction Company, creating a postwar neighborhood whole cloth south of Reid Park on Coun- try Club. Although he continued to stress the economy of his design work through the design and re nement of paraboloid roof structures (see for example his 1959 McInnes House), he is better known for his novel pas- sive strategies to heat and cool desert homes. In the Ball-Paylor house of 1952 he created a revolving solar shade that the owners could glide across the radial patio on the south side of the house, giving Ball and Paylor control over light and heat. In his Jardella House of 1944, Brown noted how the exterior darkly painted southern wall absorbed the sun’s energy during the day and radiated tremendous heat at night. This and other earlier walls inspired the “solar walls” Brown created inside the 1946 Rosenberg and 1949 Hirsch Houses. In these homes, one of his massive solar walls was placed several feet inside but near enough to a south-facing exterior wall of windows. On a winter’s day, the solar energy from the sun entered the house through the glass and was soon stored in the interior wall. Brown’s decision to move the solar wall inside allowed him to control the amount of sun that hit the wall with roof overhangs, and to maximize the use of heat gained during the day on the inside of the house at night.
Brown transferred his solar prowess to institutional projects, such as the 1948 Rose Elementary School, where passive heating and cooling were important attributes of the architectural design, but he is most celebrated for his iconic commercial work that mirrored the culture of Tucson at mid-century. The 1946 Red and Blue Drive-In at Fourth Avenue and University (demolished) and the 1948 Biltmore Motel on the Miracle Mile (demolished) are two noteworthy examples. The Drive-In used glass windows to reveal food preparation and other interior activities and steel to oat shade canopies above the diners in automobiles. The Biltmore had a more complex program but it similarly celebrated the modern auto age. Brown clad much of the main circular two story motel building in glass to showcase the modern lobby and upstairs restaurant. The guest rooms also had modern architectural materials but were designed to provide both shade and privacy and did so by grouping four rooms around a shared mechanical core.
Art Brown continued his architectural practice through the 1960s, picking up private and commercial clients, as well as institutional work for the University of Arizona, and in 1970 teamed up with his son architect Gordon Brown. His prolific career is evidence that Brown designed not for style, but for meaningful solutions to architectural problems. His architectural legacy will be remembered for its pioneering approach to passive solar heating and cooling, and its commitment to modern architecture and modernism.