The year was 1970. The occasion was the annual Phoenix Home and Garden Show. The opportunity was to open my great grandfather J.E. Thompson’s 46-year-old Rancho Joaquina estate for public viewing. The problem: It was a mess, inside and out.
In stepped the local chapter of the American Institute of Interior Designers, along with The Phoenix Art Museum, to restore, refurbish, and redecorate the two-story, 11-room mansion to a semblance of its former glory. Attendees paid $2 a head to see the place.
The interior designers apparently had their work cut out for them. The home, though an architectural treasure, had fallen into disrepair. It had changed hands several times, fallen prey to “remuddling” efforts, and spent years unoccupied, an unworthy fate for such a grand structure.
J.E., who made a fortune on Wall Street in his thirties, in 1924 commissioned the renown Phoenix architectural firm of Fitzhugh & Byron to design the home in an authentic adobe style, with 2-foot-thick walls, six fireplaces, deep-set windows, and interior and exterior arches. The house was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. “This was the earliest known adobe revival building in Phoenix,” says the listing petition. “Rancho Joaquina firmly established the use of adobe for elegant Phoenix homes.”
By 1970, however, when it was to be shown to the public, the estate had been reduced to a shadow of its former self. By this time, the six arches that connected the living room to a long, 48-by-10 foot covered patio, where the family photo below was shot, had been glassed in. Designers covered the floor with a white wool shag rug. They created a sitting area with two quilted chintz sofas on zinnia lacquered frames arranged to offer a view of the lawn.
They clearly went overboard with the interior scheme for the porch, where wicker furniture had sufficed for J.E. “The patterned chintz has a chocolate background with accents of parrot green and pineapple. Zinnia, an orange-brandy hue, is repeated in the sailcloth draperies, which are trimmed in a pineapple cotton braiding.”
Another upstairs bedroom, the rose room, posed a thorny challenge to the interior designers. According to Phoenix magazine, it had too many doors and an “unsightly” heating unit. The designers decided to give the rose room a pink theme, adding pink soft lights and mirrors, a pink carpet, pink draperies, and pale pink locked moire-over-foil wall coverings. “The heating unit was disguised as a planter, the wall behind it mirrored to add dimension to what had been a dead room.” The room, according to the magazine, was transformed into a “thing of beauty.” J.E., regularly pictured with a cigar between his lips, unfortunately wasn’t around to offer comment.
A short review of the floor plan is in order. The home, according to a real estate brochure from the 1970s, featured a large 19-by-14 tiled entry with an elevator to the second floor. The first level also contains a dining room, dressing room, family room, kitchen, laundry, studio, and potting studio. A first-floor bedroom, according to the brochure, is “ideal for live-in help.” Upstairs, a large master suite included a sitting room with a fireplace, a bedroom, a full bath plus a dressing room, and an enclosed porch. The East Suite on the upstairs level contains a sitting room, a library, and a bath.
By 1970, when the house tours took place, J.E.’s ranch had been whittled down to a big house with some nice grounds, a shadow of its former self. J.E. had used his earnings in the stock market and mining to buy a full 80 acres between 46th and 48th streets and Osborn and Thomas Roads. At the time, the site was located about nine miles outside of town. Today, 4630 E. Cheery Lynn Road is within a close-in suburb, surrounded by undistinguished 2000-square-foot ranch homes.
J.E. and Bess lived in a more modest home on the property while they built their mansion. But they didn’t stop the project until they had built a compound, with a six-room guest house, six smaller guest cottages, servants’ quarters, stables, and even a small lookout post against a back wall. J.E. spread adobe walls liberally throughout the estate to separate the buildings and provide privacy.
Despite its many buildings, Ranch Joaquina’s landscaping may have been even more impressive. The estate was a horticultural preserve, literally and figuratively. J.E. planted virtually every type of semitropical bush, shrub, and tree that he could buy, importing plants from around the globe. He brought in the largest variety of date palms in the world, most of them from Arabia. At the peak of his 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 lush, manicured grounds — J.E. employed as many as 15 gardeners — combined with the buildings to produce a resort-like setting. Guests would often gather in an olive grove on the east side of the house, where an outdoor dining area was set beneath sheltering leaves. They would gaze at a two-fountain reflecting pool designed with ornamental tiles from Italy. To another side was a huge open kitchen with a barbecue pit so big that 40 steaks could be broiled simultaneously.
Walks, flanked by trimmed hedges, rose gardens, and ornamental plantings, wound casually through the property, which included three mammoth lagoons. Guests could meander past hundreds of rare date palms, citrus, grapes, bamboo, carob, eucalyptus, and other flowering shrubs. J.E. planted plenty of arid plants on the grounds, too — palo verde, agave, aloe, and dozens of different cactus.
One area of the grounds, called “the jungle” in later years, supposedly contained a tree from every country.
For visitors who weren’t into plants, like my father and his brother vacationing there during the summer, J.E. thoughtfully included a swimming pool with a two-story bathhouse (a series of large rooms underneath the bathhouse were apparently used for bathing, messages, and shaving), a miniature golf course, a croquet field, and a stable — Bess rode a horse virtually every day. There was also a playhouse among the olive trees, built from old wood that lined the first irrigation ditches in the area. An arbor leading to the pool area contained tiles illustrating the story of Don Quixote. By 1961, though, only one tiled wall remained, so I guess you had to read the book.
J.E. died in 1950. Four years later, in the settlement of his estate, two Eastern physicians purchased 33 acres around the main house, reportedly paying $4,000 an acre. The physicians hoped to establish a luxury rest home, a sanatorium in other words, but their plan didn’t pan out partly because of differences with the city’s development board. The main estate was then whittled down by sub-dividers who built homes in what’s now the El Coronado Estates community.
State Senator Hubert Merryweather bought the house and some surrounding acreage in 1956. He sold it in 1967 to Mrs. Elizabeth Hazen of Tucson. In that year, Hazen and Merryweather asked the city to rezone the 12.5 acres that remained around the main residence, which took up another acre, to produce 47 homes. Hazen, who was from Tucson, valued the 12.5 acres at $20,000 an acre.
During much of the 1960s, the house was unoccupied and the grounds had fallen into disrepair. Rancho Joaquina, according to wary locals, was haunted. Children who wandered onto the grounds would run screaming, swearing they had seen a ghost. It’s not clear whether the house was occupied during the early 1970s.
When Nan Pyle bought the house in 1978 (she owned it until her death in 1985), it was an overgrown jungle, according to newspaper reports. She told a Phoenix garden writer that she had to remove 20 years of palm frond droppings. She restored a fountain, plugged new plants to go with the ones planted by J.E., and built a new brick walk. Two full-time gardeners cared for the site.
During Pyle’s time, the gardens became a meeting place for the Desert Botanical Garden and other local organizations. The garden experience, according to one writer, began around the pool and restored fountain, “a large, bubbling, margarita-shaped structure with goldfish and blooming waterlilies.” The fountain and pool, he wrote, were surrounded by thirty-foot oleander trees that had “grown thick in red and white.” Everywhere, J.E.’s specimens had matured to grow like trees. Ground cover had grown rampant as well. The garden court was blanketed with hibiscus, cape honey suckle, pyracantha, camellia, and Japanese privet.
A hidden walk on the opposite side of the read-and-white oleanders led past giant stalks of bamboo, mature chinaberries, Goldwater pines, a towering silk oak, and a few of J.E.’s original date palms. A pond in the clearing, shaped like a butterfly, was dusted with a ground cover of vinca. Star jasmine and Algerian ivy, with its trademark large leafs and needle points, enveloped other patches along the walk.
The place was a botanist’s paradise. “Perennials and annuals cluster off the walk, colorful fillers like populace (moss roset), dianthus, begonias, and hearts and flowers. There is also a good sampling of roses, floribundas, climbers, and hybrid teas (including the difficult to grow but spectacularly silvery lavender ‘Sterling Silver’).”
The garden was bordered by a pink-colored adobe wall that circled into a small tower. The tower, equipped with a table and umbrella, had once overlooked sheep farms. The adobe wall was covered with cat’s claw that turns from green to yellow in the spring. The garden was reportedly a haven for birds — hummingbirds, songbirds, and pigmy owls.
The house received yet another make-over by a famous interior designer in recent years. You can click here to see what the living room of the house looks like today. The living room now beckons with “refined tones of caramels and blacks and accents of golden tobacco.” One can only hope those accents weren’t left by the cigar-chomping J.E.
Click on the images in the gallery to blow them up!
Susan Hancock Boehme says
I remember going by the mansion in the 60’s before the 2nd part of the land was sold. It was very overgrown and spooky because of the trees and adobe walls and such. This was a massive property and thankfully has survived because of it’s historical significance. Thank you for all the information and pictures!
Boyce Thompson says
Thanks for your comment, Susan. I’m glad someone appreciates the late nights I put into this! I wish I had more extensive pictures of the house. These are the only ones I’ve seen from the time when J.E. actually lived there.
Jacqueline Marie says
Thank you so much for taking the time to put this site together and telling the story of this wonderful house.
I grew up not far from there and still have a sister who lives in the area.
I remember in the 60’s the house was said to be haunted. There were stories of a cellar with dungeons in it. Sometime in the 70’s I went with a girl friend up to the door and was allowed to come inside by a woman. I got to see the huge living room and if I remember right a down stairs bath room which I remember as being either deep purple or maroon. deep royal colors. The house and ground were in need of a lot of work. Years ago the house was listed in the phone book under Merryweather.
I am glad the house has been preserved and grateful to you for taking the time to build this site.
I would love to learn more about the history of the house and see more pictures.
Jacqueline Marie says
There’s a few things I would like to say First off your children, grand children and family are very lucky you’ve done this research its a wonderful legacy for them all.
I found this site while searching for information about the Merryweather house. I have a few questions…
I read the story about Boyce Thompson Jr. confusing it must be you if your father was the Sr. right?
Second why no mention of Bill Thompson, your fathers brother I believe and Arizona’s wonderful creator of the Wallace and ladmo show.
Also were you in the East Phx area during 2005 or 2006. The reason I ask is back then I was at lunch at a restaurant on about 32 nd St and Thomas rd (its was kinda like a Dennys) with my elderly parents when a guy in the next booth struck up a conversation with us about the area and places like legend city and the Merryweather house. The conversation went on for close to 2 hours. When I took my parents home they said “so did you go to school with him” I said NO I thought you guys knew him..none of us did but he knew a lot about that house.
Another is my late husbands sister was married to a Jim Thompson a Phx police officer who was killed at a Phx Police rodeo. Ring a bell? I found Bill Thompson while searching for information about Jim Thompson.
Laura Scott says
Boyce, your article on the Merriweather mansion was so wonderful to read. My grandparents owned “big pink” as we called it in the 1970’s. I graduated high school in 1976 and I know for a fact my grandparents were living there then. I spent some wonderful summers there when my family came out from Michigan to visit our grandparents. Big Pink has many wonderful memories for me, and my family has lots of pictures of our time with our grandparents there. Can you imagine how special it was for a young teenager to come to Phoenix and to be able to live in such a wonderful place. I have lots of stories and wonderful memories. I would be interested in talking about it, you can contact me at my email address. Thank you for writing about that special house.
Jeff McCord says
I grew up down 47th from this house in the late 70s, 80s, and 90s. It was always a spooky place that my friends and I would try to catch glimpses of over the walls, from the alley, and even climbing that tower (I was a mischievous 12 year old). I remember trick or treating there one time in maybe 1989/90, and we walked up to the dark door and rang a bell, and after several minutes a man wearing a bloody surgeon’s outfit and a butcher’s knife came running out of the shadows adjacent to the door. It was terrifying, and possibly the best halloween moment of my life.
I lived my entire childhood in that neighborhood, and now I am an architect, and I hope someday to get a tour. It was a magical place to have in a neighborhood of otherwise mundane suburban development.
Wendy Simson Willhite says
Dear Boyce, Thank You so much for this great historical piece of work! I’m so intrigued with this information. Our family grew up not far from here and my dad told us stories about being friends with Bill Thompson and swimming in his pool or a relatives growing up! From the pictures and my father’s stories I’m thinking this has to be the pool? thanks again! Wendy
Holly Fitch says
I grew up on the same street, Cheery Lynn. Our house was on the same cul-de-sac two doors down. In fact, there were only two homes on the same street with this beautiful place. My parents built a house in the ‘new’ subdivision El Coronado Estates in 1968. Seeing the photos really does bring back great memories!
I loved my childhood because I could go visit that beautiful property almost every day. It was like paradise on earth! I loved the elevator, pool, winding sidewalks with pretty plants, fountains and look out tower on the south west corner of yard. I always wanted to find out more about the person who built it. J.E. Thompson put so much work into having the most beautiful piece of property that I ever saw. I thought it was 40 acres but it says 80. Hubert Merryweather and his family lived there. He was always glad to see me. Thanks for your article.
I would like to speak with you about this historic property. I am organizing an event there in the near future, and I am very interested in the history. I live in the Phoenix area and could meet with you here. If not, if you would respond via email, I would appreciate it. I have done research on the property and the family.
Thank you for your consideration.
Wyatt James says
Great article! I grew up off 46th St south of Thomas and still remember when I discovered the house while out riding my 10 speed one Sat afternoon. I always tried to picture what it must have looked like when it sat on a true estate, rather than majestically tucked in the middle of a subdivision. What a pleasure it is to still be able to drive by and gaze at it.
Kim Congdon says
I lived in Merryweather’s Mansion in the 60’s with my family. My mom was invited to live in the mansion with my brother, sister and I to keep it occupied as there were many vandals. We went to nearby Tavan elementary school and had many friends come over to the house, play in the dumb waiter and elevator. When the Monkees came to town one night we heard on the radio that they were hosting a “love-in” at Merrywether’s. We could not stop the droves of people who came in through every door! So we ended up just going with it. The Cars did come and play but the Monkees were advised it was a security risk!
We were featured in the Phoenix Gazette with an article about how the house was haunted. I will find the article and repost it later.
Kim Congdon says
We lived there from the time Mrs. Hazen bought the house in 1967 and left in 1969. We played all over the property and we were the children who were heard running all over and yelling. We played all over the vast property. In the basement we played with Mr. Merryweather’s old wading boots. He was so tall we got inside the pants and the waist came up to our heads, so we walked around like a headless person and scared people.
Kim Congdon says
Holly, I lived in the Mansion in 1968! You were right around the corner.
Earl "Chris" Gille Jr. says
Living at the Estate for 4 years was very memorable. Attending Tavan Elementary School while Dad was the Sound Man for the TV Series “26 Men,” which was filmed over in Cudia City Studios, Apacheland, and also right there in the Street Scene in the Estate. I was there from 1957 thru 1961. I returned to Az after many years, and was promptly reminded of that old “Saying”,”You can never go back” as all the Grand Majesty had given way to the front Blade of a Bulldozer and construction of the new Sub-Division. To say is was Grand, would be an “Understatement”. It is sorely missed.
Chris I am sure I babysat for you. I knew your sister and Bill her boyfriend. I was there almost every day. I have your Dad’s business card still. How is Judy. She moved away before the rest of the family. I missed her and always wonder how she was. She wrote me once but we lost contact. I watched them film lots of shows. I loved being there and love hearing all about the property. I just met Bill Thompson 2012. I didn’t know that was his Grandfather who owned the property.
Mary Kay says
I use to go visit Merryweather’s often. I spent a lot of time there and thought it was so amazing. It is so nice to be able to know more about the property and all it’s history! Do you know where Meryweather’s went? There was a small sign on the front wall saying built by Col. J. E. Thompson. I always wanted to know more about the person who built this wonder place. I wondered where the guest house was. Maybe the house by the front gate. What house did J.E. Thompson live in when the bigger house was being built. I loved the stables, the really neat bath house, pool and fountains with all kind of beautiful plants. The look out tower was really a kids dream place to play!!!!
My brother myself and a couple of friends snuck in to the main house one night in probably 66 or 67,68? I couldn’t believe the granduer of the room I was in. There was a cellar basement type area we went into. It looked like a torture chamber, Mabey a sex chamber. I remember the outside being jungle like. It seemed pretty creepy, had heard it was haunted, that’s why we went. Have often thought of the old place, had forgotten where it was located. Must have been a wonderful place to have lived when they finished building it. You don’t see places like that anymore. Makes me think of Hearst Castle.
Mary Kay says
Tell your sister i said Hi. Wish she would have kept in touch. I got one or two letters from her when she left Phoenix. I loved spending time at El Coranado and wathing them film 26 Men. I saw Wayne Newton in one of the shows. I got to go horse back riding will Bill the stunt man. Those years were very special to me. I was very sad when they sold the property. I think my dog ate the crew pie one day. Sorry about that. I was there several times a week. I watched 26 men on T. V. too but was really fun to watch the filming. Mary Kay