By Tara Kirkpatrick –
Arizona Inn Celebrates 85 Years Of Family Business
JFK once left his swimsuit here. John D. Rockefeller Jr. worried that he wasn’t paying enough. Frank Lloyd Wright admired the architecture. And Clark Gable was snapped lounging in the Arizona sunshine.
These are just a few of the famous visitors to the Arizona Inn, the historic, rose-hued hotel that recently celebrated 85 years as the place to stay when heading West – a vision established by its original founder and the state’s first congresswoman, Isabella Greenway.
“We’re aware, robustly aware, every day that the Inn has a lovely kind of momentum,” said Will Conroy, Greenway’s great-grandson and president of the Inn. “And we know that momentum is human – and comes from beyond our family or the staff at the Inn to the thousands of remarkable, extraordinary friends and guests who’ve passed through our doors for more than eight decades.”
Nestled on 14 acres in central Tucson, the 1930s-built, 92-room Arizona Inn still exudes the Spanish Colonial luxury of its infancy – with private, attached cottages radiating around lushly landscaped lawns and the original pool, made with pumice from “A” Mountain. Yet, within the sturdy walls of this desert institution, a greater story lingers of the majestic woman who built the inn and her family that still runs it to this day.
Born in Kentucky, Isabella Selmes Ferguson Greenway King was a baby in the badlands of North Dakota, but moved to New York as a teen, attended tony prep schools and became a debutante. There, she met lifelong friend Eleanor Roosevelt, according to Blake Brophy’s pink book on the inn, “Tucson’s Arizona Inn.” She married Robert H. Munro Ferguson not long after being a bridesmaid in Eleanor’s wedding to President Franklin Roosevelt and eventually moved from New York to Silver City, N.M. Ferguson’s portrait still hangs in the Inn library.
Widowed as a young mom with two children when Ferguson died of a lung infection in 1922, Isabella married John C. Greenway and moved to Ajo, Ariz., close to his copper mining operation. Just two years later, Isabella was widowed again with a third child when Greenway died from surgery complications in 1926.
Yet, through those two early-life tragedies, Isabella was always building, from her home in New York to country houses in New Mexico and Arizona. “During the 23 years of her adult life up to 1929, she had accumulated more than a modicum of experience in construction projects, ranging from the basic to the sophisticated,” Brophy wrote.
Among numerous accomplishments, Isabella became an active Tucson citizen who cared greatly for the disabled World War I veterans who often came West. She created and funded the Arizona Hut, a woodworking workshop that employed war veterans and, at its peak, sold furniture to department stores across the nation. As the Great Depression loomed, Isabella bought much of the furniture to keep it afloat. She needed a place to furnish and the Arizona Inn was born.
Building an enduring inn
Isabella took out a building permit for the Arizona Inn on Sept. 30, 1930, working with architect M. H. Starkweather. “She was convinced that Tucson needed a resort hotel of a certain type and style, and she also felt that if she were to have anything to do with it, she should conduct the project herself,” Brophy wrote.
When a workman argued against a certain change, she responded, “Don’t you ever tell me I can’t do anything.” When confirming the pink color of the Inn, Isabella took the painter out in the sunlight and pointed to her forehead. “This is the color I want,” she said, according to Brophy’s book.
“The Inn’s rooms and paths are still as Isabella designed them,” said Conroy, who updated Brophy’s book with his own, “Arizona Inn, A History,” in 2013. “So, I feel her legacy in virtually every architectural line and curve.”
Her remarkable foresight is still evident today, he wrote in his book. Isabella had a large service basement created for the pool, which has since made upgrades easier. In the dining room, she triple-layered the wood floor to limit sound and included old-growth fir trussing too hard for termites. Underground protective tunnels for the water pipes have given way to electrical, fiber-optic cables and water lines. Conroy wrote, “I once came upon a plumber gazing in apparent wonder at one of the passageways. He remarked that the tunnel was a bit like opening a garage and finding a mint Model A Ford inside.”
A celebrity draw
When the Inn opened on Dec. 18, 1930, it hosted the University of Arizona’s Sigma Phi Gamma sorority dinner dance – an event that established the Inn as a community gathering place. Isabella then went on to serve two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1933 to 1937 and two years later married a third time to manufacturer Harry O. King. They split their time between New York and Tucson.
Through the Inn, Isabella built quite a celebrity following. Famous guests include Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, John Wayne, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope and others. And that’s just the movie stars. Also visiting the Inn were Salvador Dali, Howard Hughes, Frank Lloyd Wright, Ansel Adams and, of course, Eleanor Roosevelt.
Thornton Wilder wrote “The Matchmaker” at the Inn. Rockefeller Jr. wrote a letter to the Inn manager after his stay, “I shall count on your telling me frankly if you think the rate for any subsequent visits should be raised,” which is noted in Conroy’s book. Inn secretary Mary M. Lovelee wrote to Sen. John F. Kennedy’s office in 1958, noting that he had left his bathing suit at the Inn.
“One of the great joys of spending time at the Inn has been casually exploring some of the hotel’s informal archives,” said Conroy, whose book is full of historic mementos. “There are the letters from the Roosevelts and Kennedys yes, but far more important to me are the intimate letters and surprisingly preserved scraps of day-to-day life.”
Family looks to the future
Though Isabella died in 1953, the Arizona Inn today looks much the way she envisioned it and remains a popular choice for Tucson weddings and events – notably the Silver & Turquoise Ball, an annual, black-tie gala held here since the 1950s.
The tables and chairs in the dining room have not changed, but the 1970s brought air conditioning and a remodel to the main building, which included the new Tucson Room and a gift shop. The Inn’s Spalding House was renovated into nine new guest rooms in 2006. And iPads have been added to each guest room, as well as a digital information screen in the lobby. Yet, the historic charm remains.
“The Inn is just a physically wonderful place to be every day − to eat and walk and talk and swim and listen and read and think,” said Conroy, who credits the Inn staff for “heartfelt civility” that has persisted since the 1930s.
The Arizona Inn has never left Isabella’s family – managed by her son Jack Greenway, then her granddaughter Patty Doar. Conroy, Doar’s son, is the fourth generation to run the beloved hotel and has served as its president since 2005. He still remembers his first visit in 1970.
“I was five years old. My uncle Jack Greenway had set up a waterslide on the lawn of the Greenway House at the Inn, where we were all staying. Our family still gathers on the same exact lawn here with a whole new generation now.”