Why is Rancho Joaquina, my great grandfather’s 6,709-square-foot Adobe Revival home built in 1924-5, worthy of being listed on the National Register of Historic Places?
Because it was built by my great grandfather J.E. Thompson, of course.
No seriously, what’s the criteria? Why was the gorgeous Phoenix home listed in 1984? An ideal source recently provided a bullet-proof, non-parochial answer to that question — Jim Garrison, chief architect for Arizona State Parks who did the research to get the beautiful home registered in 1984.
Garrison addressed more than 150 guests — most members of Arizona’s Historical League — in an October speech at lovely Rancho Joaquina, which has been beautifully and faithfully restored by its current owners, Marc and Karen Goldblatt. (More on that later.) He brought a special treat, as well — freshly discovered evidence that confirms the home’s vital importance in Arizona history.
To earn a place on the Historic Register, Garrison explained, a building must have either “significance” or “integrity.” Garrison quickly dispensed with the second criterion. “All of us seeing this property first hand realize that even if this property doesn’t have significance, it has integrity. We can see that with our own eyes.”
But Garrison argued that the two-story Adobe home has plenty of significance as well. Arizona has its share of Adobe structures, 929 by Garrison’s count, including some — The Casa Grande Ruins, for instance — that date back to the 18th century. Adobe construction fell into disfavor in the early 1900s after the arrival of railroads, which made it easier to ship in milled lumber and brick to build homes.
The rise of concrete construction after WWI, however, led to a revival of adobe structures, this time built with concrete foundations, concrete stucco, and concrete bond beams.
“Some people considered this house the first example of Adobe Revival,” said Garrison. In fact, that’s what was written in the Historic Register application. Unfortunately, the archivist has found earlier precedents, including two nearby — the Douglas House on 40th Street and a one-story building at 5005 East Camelback built in 1923.
“This is actually one of the first five from the Adobe Revival period in the 20s and 30s. The movement peaked in about 1938.”
But wait, aren’t there other features that make this gorgeous home worthy of designation? Of course there are. Rancho is one of a mere handful of two-story adobes done during the revival. Besides the Farmer-Goodwin house and the Eisendrath House, both in Tempe, “there may be only one or two more two-story adobes,” Garrison said.
And it’s the only one of those two-story adobes with an elevator! That may not seem like a big deal — I certainly don’t think it is — but Garrison said that it counts.
So does size. At 6,709 square feet, Rancho cost a small fortune to build. J.E. Thompson could afford it because he’d made a killing on Wall Street financing Arizona mining operations with his brother, William Boyce Thompson, who left the Boyce Thompson Arboretum in Superior, Ariz.
“In 1924, the average cost of a house was less than $9,000 in the city of Phoenix,” said Garrison. “This was a $60,000 house, pretty much in the middle of nowhere. Its size, its uniqueness of construction, its use of adobe — all these make this building significant.”
It also helps that the home was designed by “architects of note” — Lee Fitzhugh and Lester Byron. “They did the Grunow Clinic at 9th Street and McDowell. They did the Arizona Museum in University Park on Van Buren and 10th Avenue. They did many important buildings.”
The real clincher, though, was staring the guests right in the eyes — the elegant adobe arches that grace the back arcade. The arches are actually made with adobe, as opposed to the fired brick used to construct the missions in California. “These adobe arches are extremely rare,” Garrison said.
Then Garrison dropped his bomb. He was doing research into the Eisendrath House in Tempe and found a reference to a landscape architect who had drawn a plan for Rancho Joaquina. The house currently sits on less than 3 acres of property. But it once anchored an 80-acre parcel that was home to citrus and date groves.
“Has anyone heard of Ralph Dalton Cornell?” Garrison asked the crowd. No one raised a hand.
“Cornell had a master’s degree in landscape architecture from Harvard University. For many years, he was landscape architect for the University of California at Los Angeles. He designed the campus at Pomona College. He drew a site plan in 1924 for this property.”
Garrison produced the plan. It showed the location of many buildings on the site, including the stables and servants quarters in the southeast quadrant, and roads that connected buildings on the ranch. But it didn’t show some other key features, including the olive grove east of the main house where J.E. threw his lavish parties, or the rose gardens on either side of the main driveway. The evidence of a landscape plan clinches the deal in Garrison’s mind.
“It’s got to be the first incidence of a private residence having the involvement of a landscape architect in the state of Arizona,” he told the group. “You just never know what you are going to find if you look in the right place. So we have something really worthy of preservation here.”
According to the original historic register nomination, Thompson bought the east half of the Southeast quarter of Section 3 in January 1920. Before building the Adobe Revival home he had already built a large stable, a six-car garage, several small guest cottages, a large guest cottage, a concrete swimming pool and pool house, and a large rustic summer house.
Construction of the Adobe Revival home, placed in “the center of an orange grove,” followed by the planting of the grounds and gardens, “completed the ranch complex and established the grandeur of the estate.”
J.E. Thompson III, who lived at Rancho Joaquina as a kid, told this blogger that the citrus groves were concentrated along the northern and northwest perimeters of the property. Some of these features can be seen in a McCulloch Bros. photograph (below) contained in a Works Progress Administration book about Arizona.
The site once held one of the largest collections of date palms in the world, most of them collected from Arabia. At the peak of J.E.’s horticultural effort, in about 1929, just before the big depression, the south section of the property was converted into a commercial nursery with date gardens. The Tropical Groves Nursery, established in 1931, “was renown for its collection of exotic and experimental plants and trees,” according to the historic designation.