Pioneer landowner a Tucson legend
From Ernie Heltsley's REAL ESTATE
The late land baron John W. Murphey must have known, in poker
lingo, "when to hold em and when to fold em."
Murphey, one of Tucsons first big land speculators and
home builders, must have been a tough gambler as well.
He had to have been shrewd to buy nearly 8000 acres of federal
and state land in the Catalina Foothills for an estimated average
of $15 an acre, even decades ago.
Murphey held on to land until he felt it was the right time to
Today, foothills 1-acre home sites sell for $240,000 and up.
For more than 50 years - the 1920s to the late 70s - Murphey
parlayed that land into several family fortunes.
Holding on to land was important to him, as well as not going
in debt. He was careful about how and when to sell, says John
G. Payson, Murpheys right-hand man for 17 years before
Murphey died in 1977. Payson died in 1995.
For a look back and to the present and possible future for this
column, we searched the Arizona Daily Star archives, and interviewed
two of the men who have managed the holdings for Murphey and
First, there was Payson, a certified public accountant by training,
who began handling the estate in 1960.
Michael Sarikas, a lawyer, came in 1986. He now oversees the
entire operation as trustee of family trusts and managing general
partner of partnerships needed to finish developing the remaining
250 to 300 acres.
Those remaining acres are scattered around strategic locations
in the foothills awaiting residential and commercial development.
A third trust official is Robert Snowden, who represents the
heirs interests in the trusts and how the money is divided
among the beneficiaries.
Sarikas says the major holdings left are:
· Home sites in La Paloma. The Murphey heirs bought the
Cottonwood Properties defaulted notes out of the Resolutions
Trust Corp.s Southwest Savings holdings.
· 140 acres in Catalina Foothills No. 10 residential subdivision,
northeast of the alignment of North Country Club Road and East
· 70 acres of residential land at North Pontatoc Road,
between old Ina Road and East Sunrise Drive.
· At Skyline Road and North Campbell, 36 acres of CB-1
commercially zoned land on the northwest quadrant.
Murphey may be best known as the developer of the Broadway Village
retail center, which he opened in 1940 at Country Club Road and
East Broadway, and for the 200 or so remaining high-demand Joesler
homes he developed throughout the older part of the city and
in the Catalina Foothills.
Murphy hired architect Josias T. Joesler out of Los Angeles,
as he did Payson later.
Murphey heirs, including his widow, Helen, and children, sold
off 800 acres to Cottonwood Properties in 1983 for the crown
development of La Paloma Country Club, 27 holes of golf and resort
Murpheys land was used to build many notable projects,
such as Fairfield in the Foothills residential subdivision on
East Sunrise, west of North Kolb Road, and some of the shops
along North Fourth Avenue.
Payson says Murphey built the first four Catalina Foothills residential
subdivisions, with the first being unnumbered, plus No. 2 through
No. 4. Then the remaining subdivisions Nos. 5 through 10, plus
Las Alturas on Pontatoc, were built under trusts formed in 1959.
Murphey wasnt only a speculator and home lot developer.
Starting in the 20s, he began to put together the holdings
when the land was just high desert that no one seemingly cared
about - at least until it became more accessible and Tucson grew.
Until the 30s when a bridge was built over the Rillito
River at North Campbell Avenue, the only bridge crossing over
the Rillito was at North Oracle Road, then the main north-south
highway through the city.
In the meantime, Murphey was busy concentrating on older areas
of the city (whose eastern boundary was Country Club Road) about
the time he built Broadway Village.
Many of the homes were near the UA, where Helen Street, an east-west
street just north of Speedway, was named for Murpheys wife.
"He was an old-time entrepreneur, a self-starter, and a
hard-working guy who owned the land as well," Payson says.
Not only was he a land speculator and developer, he also was
a contractor who built homes on the lots he sold. He also had
his own crew of in-house plumbers, electricians and cabinetmakers.
He made the loans on the houses and carried back the mortgages.
He also insured the homes, Payson says.
Murphey also supplied the water from his Catalina Foothills Water
Co., which has been sold to the city.
He needed a school, so he formed Catalina Foothills District
16, Payson says.
Murphey wanted a church, so he donated the land and helped build
St. Phillips in the Hills Episcopal Church on East River
Road and North Campbell Avenue.
Payson says Murphey "a pioneer of deed restrictions,"
put on 50-year deed restrictions on his land in 1930 to protect
his land values. He banned Bermuda grass. He required certain
architectural styles, colors and heights. Those expired in 1980.
When World War II came along, Murphey shut down his Tucson building
and built U.S. Army Air Corps bases under government contract.
One of them was at Roswell, N.M., Payson says.
By 1950, he put all his land in family trusts. The business of
the trusts was switched strictly to lot development. Murphey
quit building as an individual, but he continued to manage his
other properties, such as Broadway Village, warehouses on South
Park and a few apartments he built.
He built the warehouses from lumber he salvaged from ice houses
abandoned by the railroad after it began refrigerating cars for
fruits, vegetables and other perishables.
Murphey wore a Stetson, but he was not a cowboy despite having
two huge working cattle ranches, Payson says. One was the 31,000-acre
U-Circle, north and east of Tucson. The other was spread over
three counties around Silver City, N.M.
Much of Murpheys 8,000 acres was in the heart of what is
being considered for incorporation today into "Foothills
City," or some such name.
Payson recalls the cigar-chomping Murphey, who also thought of
himself as "mayor" of his beloved foothills, had spoken
It never came about, but Murphey did have a big hand in pushing
through the Pima County Board of Supervisors the Catalina Foothills
Area Plan that has guided development of the affluent bedroom
and retirement community on the north edge of Tucson.
"John Murphey would ask, should we try and incorporate?
He considered himself mayor, an unappointed or unofficial mayor
of the foothills," says Payson. "Ive seen him
pick up paper along the roads. He had his men cut mistletoe out
"He really left an imprint on this town," Payson adds.
How do todays residents of the affluent foothills feel
"Most people recognize an obligation of the community to
be a part of it, help with problems of the inner city. But they
dont think they would have a strong enough voice on the
(Tucson) City Council," says Payson.
"From a metropolitan standpoint, such as planning, roads
and sewers, incorporation makes sense. Fragmenting a community
is not in anybodys best interests," he says.
Ernie Heltsleys REAL ESTATE column appeared in the August
24, 1997 edition of the Arizona Daily Star
This article reprinted with permission of author Ernie
Heltsley and the Arizona Daily Star