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Bullion Plaza Museum celebrates 100 years as Miami icon

Bullion Plaza Cultural Center & Museum Executive Director Tom Foster has led the effort to rehabilitate the iconic structure that was built to be a school to segregate Mexican and Native American students. Photo by LCGross

Miami’s Bullion Plaza Cultural Center and Museum celebrates its 100th anniversary this month and is preparing to celebrate what has become a centerpiece of the town’s identity.

The building that started out as a segregated school has become a gathering place for celebrations and festivals, but is also one of the premier museums in the state thanks to the work of a handful of people who saved it from demolition some 30 years ago.

The transformation of Bullion began one night during a Miami school board meeting in 1994, when former County Attorney Jerry DeRose received a late evening phone call from his Chief Deputy Attorney Candyce Pardee.

Pardee, who specialized in educational law, was the county representative at a meeting announcing the findings of an engineering firm hired to determine the stability of the school after it experienced tremors from nearby mining activity.

When DeRose heard about the report, he decided to shut down the school the next day for the safety of everyone involved.

“I said ‘Candy, there will be no school tomorrow and Bullion Plaza School,’” DeRose remembers. “I don’t want to be in the headlines as the guy who allowed them to ignore professional opinion and end up killing 100 little children. I don’t want that on my soul.”

At that point, the building was 70 years old. Little did those involved know at the time, but Bullion and its grounds was on the cusp of its second life as a monument to the past and the region’s deep and diverse cultural history.

Bullion was the work of architect Henry Charles Trost, whose firm Trost and Trost designed several buildings in Globe-Miami, including Divine Grace Church and the original Miami High School, as well as Hill Street School and the Masonic Temple in Globe among others.

From the time Bullion Plaza School had its formal opening on March 24, 1924 through 1951, it was segregated, being built specifically for Mexican Americans and Apaches, who were often punished for speaking their native languages.

Bullion Plaza School, circa 1924. Courtesy photo

During that time, Miami neighborhoods were also separated by culture, and the Miami pool was only available to Mexican and Apache children on Fridays before it was drained for cleaning.

While the passage of the Brown v. Board of Education happened in 1954, the Town of Miami decided to get ahead of the curve and desegregated the school in 1951. That was also the year the Miami Vandals won the Class B State Championship with a team composed mostly of Mexican students from Bullion.

By 1994 though, age and neglect were beginning to have an effect on the building, which led to its demise as a school. Destiny Charter School briefly took up residence there before moving to Globe a few years later.

The following year, in 1995, the Committee to Save Bullion Plaza School was organized by Otto Santa Anna and Robert Reveles, a Miami native who graduated in 1951 and went on to become a social justice advocate who worked for several prominent Representatives, including both Stewart and Morris K. Udall.

Thanks to the work of the committee, the Miami School Board agreed to sell the school to the Town of Miami, and in 1997 entered into a purchase agreement for the price of $75,000.

At the time, Miami Mayor Joe Sanchez, who was also the town’s postmaster, appointed Santa Anna and Reveles as co-chairs of the Bullion Plaza School Committee.

“They said it was a safety hazard for the kids and were going to tear it down,” Sanchez, who is now 88, says. “We couldn’t let it happen: There was too much history there so we approached the school board and eventually won the bid.”

Sanchez says at the time, the school district was considering consolidation to a single campus, which may have influenced the decision to close the school. There were also murmurs that mining interests wanted to purchase the property and raze the buildings.

Throughout 1998, the committee conducted a series of workshops with history and museum consultants to develop a mission statement and set policies for collections and exhibit criteria. It also conducted oral history training and initiated long-term planning.

That was the year the name Bullion Plaza Cultural Center and Museum was adopted. The following year, the museum attained its nonprofit 501c3 status and in 2000, the National Park Service officially recognized Bullion Plaza School on the National Register of Historic Places, based on the school being historically important for its association with the Mexican Americans and school segregation in Arizona. It was also a nod to the neoclassical revival architecture of the building.

In 2001, the IRS granted the museum nonprofit status as well. That was the year Sanchez was elected to the Gila County Board of Supervisors, so he had to step down from the Bullion Plaza board to avoid a conflict of interest. But as Supervisor, he was able to help in other ways.

“I hated to leave the town,” Sanchez says. “I was the mayor and we had a good Council, a good town manager and a good police and fire department as well as a good county clerk.”

After he moved on though, he was able to help secure funding for the Miami Library and additional funds to help the transition of Bullion Plaza to what it has become today.

Sanchez served on the Board of Supervisors from 2001 to 2008 and continued to champion his hometown and the project it had taken on.

He says one of the best things that happened in those early days was the hiring of Executive Director Tom Foster, who began as a volunteer in 2001. He became executive director in 2009, and now oversees museum operations and has become a much sought-after expert throughout the country.

Foster was born and raised in Southern California, but came to Arizona to attend Arizona State University in 1971, eventually earning his bachelor’s degree in education with a minor in art in 1974.

From there he moved to Prescott and taught throughout Yavapai County and sharpened his museum skills working for Sharlot Hall Museum.

He has always been intrigued with mechanical antiques and the rich mineral and mining history of his adopted state. An avid collector of antiques, Foster lent his expertise to several museums around the U.S., but after a visit to Miami in 1994 for the Miami Boomtown Spree, became intrigued with the Copper Corridor.

“They were just getting started and needed volunteers with museum experience, so I went to a board meeting,” Foster says. “They had gone through a laundry list of ideas for the building: a FEMA management center, a retirement home, police station or town hall, but instead, decided to turn it into an economic development engine.”

He found a temporary place to stay as he volunteered and in 2003 or so moved to Miami full time. When the Bullion Plaza board hired him he never looked back.

“Bullion is becoming a destination,” Foster says. “But none of this would have been possible without the help of Freeport McMoRan, the Gila County Board of Supervisors, the Arizona Historical Society, United Fund and Kino Floors.”

He adds that many other businesses and individuals contributed time, talent and money—too many to name here—and sees the museum as an effort that would not succeed without participation from the entire community.

In addition to his many accolades as a professional museum director, Foster is an Arizona Historical Society board member, which is governor appointed and legislature approved.

As Bullion Plaza prepares to celebrate, planning is underway for a public celebration on March 23, beginning at 11 a.m. with a welcome speech from new board president Phil Stewart, who was recently appointed to the position.

“Tom and the board have cultivated some wonderful relationships, which we very much value and cherish and we’re always adding new stakeholders,” Stewart says. “If we can get the message out there, if Bullion can become a powerhouse of knowledge and knowledge acquisition it’s a win, win, win: Everybody wins.”

The celebration will also feature a reception in the gym at noon and docent tours of the museum beginning at 1 p.m.

Miami artist Patty Sjolin completed a large mural in the McKusick tile room which represents all the flora and fauna of Gila County. Photo by LCGross

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