The Catalina Foothills, Then & Now

Long before well-known developments like La Paloma, Ventana, La Encantada, and the LDS Temple, there was only raw federal trust land, used primarily for cattle grazing. The Catalina Foothills, 44.6 square miles of scenic Sonoran desert, sitting at an elevation of 2500 feet, was described by naysayers as a “worthless desert hillside” with any talk of development pure “folly”. What we now know, of course, is that this area was to become one of Arizona’s most affluent, upscale, and desirable residential and commercial centers, with a population nearing 54,000.

What is well known, but sometimes overlooked, is that it was the initial vision and passion of John and Helen Murphy that spawned what many refer to today as the gem of Greater Tucson. By 1928, they owned a 7,000 tract that comprised all the land north of River Road, between Oracle and Sabino Canyon. After almost losing it all in the stock market crash the following year, they engaged Swiss architect Josias Joesler in the early 30s to help them create the first master-planned community, Catalina Foothills Estates, near the intersection of what were then dirt roads, Campbell Avenue and River Road. Originally hoping to have Joesler design a private chapel for family worship, they chose to build a small church instead, which became the Spanish Colonial wonder, St. Philips in the Hills, an Episcopal Church now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The area continued to develop over the next two decades, with estate subdivisions popping up north and south of Ina Road and along major north-south corridors of Swan, Campbell, and 1st. My family was among the thousands who moved into newly-build custom homes during that period. Sun lovers to a fault, my parents decided to move us from the seasonally dreary Northwest to Tucson in the mid-60s, building a home in Vista de la Candelas, a new development of one-acre estate homes that spread eastward from 1st Avenue, just south of Ina Road. Local shopping was available at the Casas Adobes Plaza, built by Italian immigrants Sam and Giaconda Nanini in 1948, located at the western edge of the foothills, on the Southwest corner of Oracle Road and Ina Road.

The 50s and 60s drew tourists to the area when famed Tucson artists Ted DeGrazia opened his Gallery in the Sun off Swan Road, built in stages between 1951-1965. By the late 1950s, Westward Look Resort had established itself as a desert celebrity mecca, hosting Hollywood royalty like John Wayne and Vivian Leigh.

Originally a rustic dude ranch, Westward Look blossomed into one of the first high-glam foothills resorts. Later, newer destinations like the La Paloma Resort, Ventana Canyon Resort, and Canyon Ranch opened, putting the Catalina Foothills firmly on the map as one of the country’s most appealing all-season hospitality and spa havens. 

What was to become the first country club in the foothills opened in 1963. Originally called Skyline Country Club and Resort, the steel-framed, ultra-modern clubhouse, designed by former military officer turned architect, David Fraker, was built high up on a 600-acre development and became a magnet for show-biz legends Frank Sinatra, Joe Namath, and Ann-Margret, hosting some of the nation’s top golf competitions.

While being one of the state’s most desirable high-end residential and commercial hubs, the Catalina Foothills has never strayed too far away from the Murphy’s original dream of a low-density community, featuring natural desert vegetation and terrain, with a true Sonoran vibe. The natural beauty, with miles of hiking trails through verdant canyons, welcoming hospitality, and strategic location at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains, will ensure that it will always remain one of Arizona’s most revered and beloved communities.

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