A Posh New Home in Pima County Historic Courthouse
By Christy Krueger
The University of Arizona’s extensive 103-year-old gem and mineral collection has been literally raised from underground and given a new name and a beautiful downtown Tucson home that’s open to the public.
Thanks to longtime Tucson real estate developer Allan Norville’s initial generous gift and the work of other dedicated people, the UArizona Alfie Norville Gem & Mineral Museum, named in memory of Allan’s late wife, now sits just inside the entrance to the recently renovated Pima County Historic Courthouse.
Eric Fritz, the museum’s director for the past four years, gives much credit to Allan Norville and Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry for bringing the stunning collection from Flandrau Planetarium’s basement to downtown, where many more people will be able to appreciate it.
“I made a presentation to the museum’s advisory board about 10 years ago to move it downtown,” said Norville, a longtime Tucson developer and owner of Gem & Jewelry Exchange, known as GJX, the largest wholesale participant at the Tucson Gem, Mineral & Fossil Showcase. “We wanted to move it because nobody saw it at UA; it was in the basement. With the gem show, more people will see it in one week than 20 years at Flandrau.”
Huckelberry was all for the idea. He stepped up and offered space at the refurbished courthouse. The move took place in July.
While housed at Flandrau, Fritz reported, the museum had 4,000 square feet of space. It is now spread over 12,000 square feet on the first floor of the courthouse and uses another 9,000 square feet on the lower level for classrooms, laboratories and storage. “We have 2,200 specimens on display, but there’s a total of about 20,000 specimens in research, education and display,” he said.
The museum is divided into three major sections, with samples lit up and beautifully displayed in cases lining the walls of several spacious rooms. Lighting in each room is kept low to contrast with the glowing main attractions.
First of the three galleries is Mineral Evolution, which leads visitors through the change of minerals over time. “This follows the theory of there being 50 to 60 minerals when the solar system first formed and now we have 5,600 on Earth alone,” Fritz said.
Prevalent in this section are meteorites; mineral crystals; fossils, including petrified wood from Arizona and trilobites from around the world; gem crystals, and rock-forming minerals, which are two or more minerals formed together such as granite and crystals. “You can’t help but appreciate the beauty,” Fritz said.
Displayed in the second gallery are minerals from Arizona and Mexico. Here, the emphasis is on turquoise, copper, gold and silver extracted from local mines, including those in Arizona’s Bisbee, Globe and Morenci.
“Bisbee has beautiful specimens,” Fritz said. “Miners thought they were so pretty, they couldn’t crush them, and snuck them out in lunchboxes.”
The third gallery is titled Gems & Jewelry, with bright and shiny examples of gemstones, gem crystals, precious metals and jewelry. “This room is a favorite with the ladies,” Norville said. The display includes three large pieces of silver, each weighing well over 100 pounds and found with a metal detector in the desert near Globe, Ariz. They’re on indefinite loan to the museum.
About half the display specimens are owned by the museum; the rest are on loan. Included in the latter category is a green garnet from the Smithsonian Institution. This garnet is the largest of its kind and will be returned after the 2022 gem show.
A grand opening will be held Feb. 3. “The main emphasis,” Fritz said, “is that Allan and his family’s gift made it possible to make the move to the courthouse. It was the perfect timing to memorialize Alfie.”
Alfie’s love of gems lead the couple to start GJX, and her passion for the showcase contributed to its growth. “Alfie was the best ambassador, she talked to the dealers and she helped keep the showcase in Tucson when there was talk of it moving,” Norville said. “The family is honored with her name being on it. It’s the right thing because of all she did for the gem show and GJX. We’re proud to have her name on it. And Eric has done so much.”