Our History

In 2000-2001, a group of concerned Ajo residents came together as Ajo Vision and worked together with the University of Arizona on developing a comprehensive plan for the town of Ajo. More than 400 people participated in the forums and agreed we should go forward. The results determined that Ajo needed and wanted to save historic treasures like the Curley School that were in disrepair and falling apart. The conclusion was that an arts and culture center, based on Ajo’s tri-cultural heritage should be the center-piece of a strong, new, creative economic development strategy for the town. Because success rested on identifying a sponsoring non-profit agency which already had a proven track record with agencies which would be large supporters of the project, Ajo Vision asked the International Sonoran Desert Alliance to assume ultimate responsibility for the project. The Board of ISDA reviewed the proposals and agreed this project was a good fit with its economic development mission. Success of the project is critical for the future of Ajo.

As ISDA reviewed all the elements of the project and hosted community forums seeking input, it was determined the most viable use of the Curley School was to convert its classrooms to live-work units for artisans. By attracting artisans to Ajo , they could develop new economic opportunities for the whole town and new life would be brought into the Curley School and town.

Then we got busy. Since feasibility of the project was determined, ISDA raised more than $9.6 million dollars to purchase and develop the Curley Project. Architects and engineers completed studies, plans were drawn, and environmental studies were finished. Pima County staff and Supervisors had given us outstanding financial and motivational support. Individuals generously contributed to the project as well and continue to do so.

The Curley School, the historic public school in Ajo, Arizona, completed a multi-million-dollar renovation into 30 affordable live/work rentals for artists, artisans and creative home businesses. The grand opening was held on May 29, 2007.

The Curley School's eight buildings, spread out over a seven-acre campus, offer 114,000 square feet of apartments, classrooms, workshops, and a huge auditorium with an indoor-outdoor stage. Click here to view a map of the Curley School campus. The main building, an architectural masterpiece of Spanish Colonial Revival style, was built in 1919.  Additional buildings were added to the campus in 1926 and 1937. 

The Curley School is on the National Register of Historic Places and is located in the beautiful and equally historic heart of Ajo, a former copper-mining town in southern Arizona.

Our Parent Non-Profit

The International Sonoran Desert Alliance created the Curley School Artisan Apartments. In their largest single endeavor to date, ISDA has rehabilitated the historic and formerly abandoned “Curley School” in Ajo, Arizona, into affordable live/work rentals for artists of all media and creative home businesses. ISDA is also the founding organization of the Sonoran Desert Conference Center and has restored the Ajo Plaza.

The International Sonoran Desert Alliance (ISDA) was formed in 1993 by members of the Tohono O’odham Nation and residents of Sonora, Mexico and Ajo, Arizona. Ajo is a small town in the heart of the Sonoran Desert—10,000 square miles of the hottest, most fragile desert ecosystem in North America. ISDA’s mission is an uncommon blend of concern for community, culture, and environment. It is rooted in the belief that environmental conservation and preservation can—and should—coincide with a community’s economic sustainability. 




Multi Family Executive Award of Merit of the Year Adaptive Reuse
Curley School Artsan Apartments
ISDA with Enterprise Community Investment

National Association for County, Community, and Economic Development
Excellence in Economic Development
The Curley School Artisan Apartments by ISDA
Pima County Department of Community Development and Neighborhood Development

Southwest Contractor McGraw Hill Construction
Best of 2007 Renovation/Restoration Project
The Curley School Project

The Tucson-Pima County Historical Commission
Historic Preservation Certificate
Tracy Taft fot leadership in preservation of the Curley School

Sonoran Institute 2008 Building from the Best
Creative Redevlopment and Rehabilitation Award
Curley School Artisan Apartments, ISDA

2008 Grand Winner of the Governor's Heritage Award
By Governor Janet Napolitano
ISDA & The Architecture Company

National Trust for Historic Preservation HUD Secretary's 2008
Award for Excellence in Historic Preservation
The Curley School Project
International Sonoran Desert Alliance
Pima County Government
The Architecture Company
Tucson Building and Remodeling

Compass Behavioral Health Care, Inc. Dynamic Duo Art Impact
Tracy Taft & Jim Wilcox
The Curley School Project

Ajo's Curley School was announced as the Grand Prize Winner during the Sixth Annual Statewide Historic Preservation Partnership Conference

Funding Sources

The Curley School project has been made possible through the shared vision, trust and generous support of many persons and agencies, among them regional foundations, county, state and federal programs, community contributions and historic preservation trusts. We are enormously grateful to the following:

  • Enterprise Community Investment
  • U.S. Department Housing and Urban Development (HUD)
  • National Park Service  
  • Tohono O'odham Nation  
  • The State of Arizona Department of Housing   
  • Arizona State Parks  
  • Arizona Heritage Fund
  • Arizona State Historic Preservation Office
  • Pima County Board of Supervisors  
  • Pima County Community Development & Neighborhood Conservation Dept
  • Pima County Cultural Resources & Historic Preservation Office
  • Rural Community Assistance Corporation
  • National Bank of Arizona
  • Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco Affordable Housing Program with The Bank of Tucson
  • National Trust for Historic Preservation
  • Arizona Community Foundation
  • Community Foundation for Southern Arizona
  • PRO Neighborhoods  
  • The Christensen Fund
  • Donations and contributions from numerous individuals and families.

Special thanks to Artspace Projects, Inc. for ongoing inspiration and technical assistance.