Catalina Foothills Estates No. 8


Pioneer landowner a Tucson legend

From Ernie Heltsley's REAL ESTATE Column

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 Tucson’s 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 sell.
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, Murphey’s 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 his heirs.
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 River Road.
· 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 hotel.
Murphey’s 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 wasn’t 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 Murphey’s 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. Phillip’s 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 Murphey’s 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 of incorporation.
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. "I’ve seen him pick up paper along the roads. He had his men cut mistletoe out of trees.
"He really left an imprint on this town," Payson adds.
How do today’s residents of the affluent foothills feel about incorporation?
"Most people recognize an obligation of the community to be a part of it, help with problems of the inner city. But they don’t 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 anybody’s best interests," he says.

Ernie Heltsley’s 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