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Funeral home comes back as pizzeria

TUCSON, Ariz. — Vaulted ceilings, fluted columns, exposed brick walls, arched leaded and stained-glass windows, 100-year-old wood floors.

Rustic elegance and European-style embellishments make this historic downtown Tucson building — currently undergoing renovation — an ideal space for an Italian eatery.

It's a renaissance for the structure at 101 E. Pennington St., which was built in 1906 and has gone unused since 1990.

Now, two brothers are resurrecting the long-closed Reilly Funeral Home, converting it to Reilly Craft Pizza & Drink. It's an undertaking that's both exciting and challenging for Tyler and Zach Fenton.

"For me it's more about the space than what the building was or wasn't before," said Tyler Fenton, 22, whose father, developer Steve Fenton, bought the building in 2007 for $470,000. "When my dad acquired the building .he gave the whole family a tour of it, and I instantly thought it was a phenomenal space and I saw the potential there. I never really noticed any resemblance to a funeral home."

Tyler, who will be the restaurant's chef, has put together a menu of artisan pizzas, sandwiches on freshly baked bread, appetizers, handmade pasta, and craft beers and cocktails. His brother, Zach, 25, is handling the financial side of the business.

The main floor of the two-story building, which is expected to open in midsummer, will include a dining room and bar. Patio seating and a beer garden in the old hearse garage will follow.

The building's art deco exterior will remain the same, albeit with a much needed coat of paint. The vintage 1920s neon "Reilly" sign will be refurbished, as will sconces and a metal awning above the entrance.

The second story, which served as the Reilly family living quarters, is being converted into two apartments.

"There's kind of a theme throughout everything; a balance between historic and modern," Tyler said. "It's a very old building, so it naturally had a character and a historic feel, and we're trying to complement it in a very modern way."

Architect Jay Hanson said working on the project is a "unique" opportunity. Not only are they knocking down walls and shoring up the bones of the 106-year-old building, they are also finding new uses for old fixtures and equipment.

"We're taking a lot of stuff and repurposing it," Hanson said.

Giant gears and cogs from an old casket lift, for example, will be fabricated into tabletops or their bases. Wood removed from the floor of what will be the kitchen will be used to decorate the front of the wet bar.

"We're trying to use as much as we can from the building," Tyler said, blending the rustic elements with modern touches.

Tyler, who started cooking for his family when he was a boy, honed his culinary skills working at Tucson's Vivace restaurant. His menu will include elements from regional Italian cooking, but with an American twist.

Linda Price, a University of Arizona marketing professor, doesn't think the building's history will be an impediment to the restaurant's success.

"It's got a great location, first of all. And the developer who's been in charge of this has a reputation for transforming spaces. It's a beautiful building for imaginative opportunities," she said.

Some Tucsonans may be put off by the thought of sitting down to dinner in a former mortuary, Price said. "If your father was buried through that funeral home, that leaves a different kind of imaginative trace than if it was just a cool building in downtown. There are a lot of new Tucsonans who have no memory of it in that capacity.

"The audience they're going to draw on is really that under-40 young professional who may be new to Tucson or doesn't have strong traces of memory there. It's a fantastic location; they have spillover from other successful restaurants. They have proximity to where young professionals live and work.

"There are a lot of people who have a deep commitment to preserving the historic past of Tucson, and they'll give the restaurant a chance for that alone."

Information from: Arizona Daily Star,