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In search of the Wright stuff!
As 1926 came to a close, famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright's personal and professional life seemed to be in "crash-and-burn" mode. His Taliesin studio and home in Spring Green Wisconsin had been seized by the bank, he was in the midst of bitter divorce proceedings from his second wife, and to top it all off, was arrested in Minneapolis with his future third wife for violation of the Mann Act.
A new year's phone call from one of Wright's former students, Albert Chase McArthur, who was now the chief architect for the Biltmore Hotel project in Phoenix Arizona, offered him a consulting job. With few prospects in Wisconsin, Frank Lloyd Wright arrived in Arizona in January 1927 and never really left.
As Frank Lloyd Wright's consulting role expanded on the Biltmore project, he was introduced to local land developer Dr. Alexander Chandler. They began discussing a Biltmore style resort southeast of Phoenix in the Sonoran Desert to complement Dr. Chandler's San Marcos Hotel in his namesake city. Dr. Chandler held over 1400 acres of undeveloped Sonoran Desert land in what is present-day Mountain Park Ranch in Ahwatukee Foothills Village.
Wright's noted organic architectural style would require total immersion in his new environment. He began planning Camp Ocatilla (Wright's original take on Ocatillo cacti), as an on-site laboratory, living quarters, and worksite headquarters. This camp would ultimately be assembled in the winter of 1928 (or January 1929 as reported in some of the literature) just north of present day Desert Vista High School. During this time Frank Lloyd Wright was commissioned by Dr. Chandler's Chandler Land Improvement Company to produce plans for a 300 room San Marcos-in-the-Desert Resort and Residential Community.
Frank Lloyd Wright, his family, seven draftsmen, a cook, and two servants resided at Camp Ocatilla located on a knoll just south of where San Marcos-in-the-Desert was to be built. During this time, BBQs, riding stables, and support buildings were constructed for the guests of the San Marcos Hotel located 10 miles to the east.
By the end of May 1929, Frank Lloyd Wright delivered final plans to the Chandler Land Improvement Company for a resort and residential community, having projected build costs of $480,000. The architects' group broke camp with the intent of returning in the late Fall to oversee construction. Now equipped with the final plans, Dr. Chandler began the task of raising funds to initiate construction.
Sometime in June 1929, much of the camp was destroyed by fire. This event provided an ominous sign about the future of this desert venture. On Tuesday, October 29th, 1929, the infamous "Black Tuesday" stock market crash occurred, wiping out much of Dr. Chandler's fortune as well as his investors. With the ensuing Great Depression, the plans for San Marcos-in-the-Desert were shelved and are only an obscure historical footnote today.
Starting from the Mountain Park Ranch Recreation Center parking lot on Thunderhill Place, I will describe a 7-mile loop retracing this little known piece of South Mountain and Frank Lloyd Wright's history. From the corner of Ray Road and Thunderhill Place, head north and east towards the Ray Road Access Trail - South Mountain TH. You will notice an oasis-in-the-desert on the south side of Ray Road. Pick-up the concrete pathway heading south along the greenbelt following the wash until it reaches Chandler Blvd. Cross over Chandler Blvd and continue to follow the greenbelt pathway south until you reach Mountain Vista Drive.
Vista Canyon Park will stretch out before you. This represents the western boundaries of Frank Lloyd Wright's Camp Ocatilla. The greenbelt pathway you traveled more-or-less followed some of the double-track dirt roads accessing some of the desert BBQ and cowboy camp areas used by guests of the San Marcos Hotel. Continue to follow the concrete pathway through the park until you reach the southern boundary at Frye Road. Head east past Desert Vista High School until you come to the traffic lights at S. 32nd Street. Continue the perimeter path of Camp Ocatilla by trekking north on 32nd Street and then east on Mountain Vista Drive. Just before you reach the eastern boundary of Vista Canyon Park at S. 30th Street, you will notice a fenced preserve area on the south side of Mountain Vista Drive. This is the "knoll" and the primary building site of Camp Ocatilla.
Take 30th Street to 29th Street north towards Chandler Blvd. As you travel east and approach the traffic lights at Chandler Blvd. and 32nd Street, you will be at the southwestern edge of the San Marcos-in-the-Desert site.
Continue east along Chandler Blvd. until you reach Mountain Sky Ave. If you look to the south of this intersection, the site of the present-day Family of Christ Lutheran Church used to be the location of the San Marcos Desert Inn. In the 1930s and early '40s, guests of the San Marcos Hotel would be transported 10 miles west to saddle up at the San Marcos Desert Inn to enjoy horseback rides into the Sonoran Desert. In the mid-1940s, the structure was converted into a farming residence and used for that purpose through to 1985.
Continue traveling along Mountain Sky Ave towards S. Mountain Parkway. This route appears to traverse the majority of the San Marcos-in-the-Desert site. The foothills appearing in Frank Lloyd Wright's plans and models are located in the preserve just to the north. Thanks to C. Ford Peatross from the Center for Architecture at the Library of Congress in Washington DC for providing the late 1920's Maricopa County map showing the site as being slightly north and east of the present-day intersection of Chandler Blvd. and 32nd Street.
At S. Mountain Parkway, head up the hill and continue to follow the perimeter of the preserve by taking the first street west to Rockledge Road. Make your way over to Rock Wren Road and 31st Way, cutting over to Ray Road to complete the 7-mile loop back at the Recreation Center parking lot on Thunderhill Place.
This is a walking tour/bike ride into the past, tracking a historical footnote from one of the world's preeminent architects. It's an interesting mental exercise speculating what could have been and the effect construction completion of the San Marcos-in-the-Desert Resort and Residential Community would have had on the South Mountain landscape and what was to become Ahwatukee Foothills Village. After this trek, a visit to Taliesin West is almost mandatory. Enjoy!
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