Mission Revival

Written by Douglas Towne Category: History Issue: July 2016
Group Free

For most venerable resorts, celebrating their famed history is merely good marketing. At the San Marcos Golf Resort, however, it’s more a necessity. While the Crowne Plaza hotels group officially operates the newly updated resort opened by Dr. A.J. Chandler in 1913, some contend there’s a higher power overseeing things. 

The buzz is that Chandler, who died in 1950, still keeps an eye on the resort through his portrait, which overlooks the hotel lobby from above the grand staircase. Whenever the painting is taken down, bad things supposedly occur at the San Marcos. 

Despite this superstition, when renovating the San Marcos for its centennial 2013 reopening, workers temporarily removed Chandler’s portrait. “It revealed that painters had carefully worked around the frame the last half-dozen times so as not to disturb it,” Jody Crago, Chandler Museum administrator, says. “The resort had apparently taken the superstition seriously for a long time.”

And what was the result of such risky behavior? At the reopening gala, a massive downpour made a mess of the scheduled outdoor activities. Was it mere coincidence, or the doctor’s doings? “It’s his hotel; don’t mess with the boss!” opines Brittany Tretta, the resort’s wedding coordinator.

It’s not surprising Chandler might still have some sway over the San Marcos, which became the focal point of his namesake city. “Dr. Chandler was a larger-than-life figure, in the same vein as Carnegie or Rockefeller,” Crago, who coauthored the book, Chandler, declares. “He consistently bet on new ideas, lost money, and then made it back with the next investment opportunity.”

A successful Detroit veterinarian, the Canadian-born Chandler was lured west at the age of 28 by the offer to become Arizona’s Territorial Veterinarian in 1887. His underlying motivation, however, was to tap the Valley’s economic potential. His appointment coincided with a severe drought and instead, he pursued business interests. After marrying the first of his three wives in 1890, Chandler utilized loopholes in the Desert Land Act to acquire an 18,000-acre ranch with financial help from his Detroit connections.

Capitalizing on investments in real estate, water, power and new crops, Chandler started what is now the City of Chandler with the construction of the San Marcos. Modeled after his favorite Southern California vacation destination, Chandler touted his new community as the “Pasadena of the Salt River Valley.”

“The San Marcos became the first resort in Arizona that wasn’t a sanitarium or based on hot springs,” Crago notes. Designed by Californian Arthur Burnett Benton, the hotel is Arizona’s earliest reinforced concrete structure and its best example of Mission Revival architecture. 

Chandler’s immense influence is illustrated by the hotel’s guest list, which included U.S. Vice President Thomas Marshall and Arizona Governor George W.P. Hunt, who attended the resort’s grand opening on November 22, 1913. With luxurious amenities such as a phone and private bathroom in each room, the San Marcos became the destination of the well-heeled. Verandas, outdoor patios and a rooftop teahouse afforded inspiring vistas of the surrounding desert’s beauty.

Guests could play tennis, polo or take an overnight horseback ride to the rustic Desert Inn by South Mountain, where they would cook over a campfire and sing cowboy songs. An orange tree-lined promenade led from the hotel lobby to the state’s first grass golf course. Chandler kept a herd of ostriches adjacent to the hotel as a business investment, believing their feathers would rebound as a trendy fashion statement. The flightless birds, however, only succeeded in entertaining guests.

Chandler’s influential friends grew to include architect Frank Lloyd Wright. “They were two visionaries who respected each other, even after their business connections ended,” Crago says.

Wright and his apprentices lived adjacent to the San Marcos at the La Hacienda, a former polo stable converted into a hotel, in 1935 and 1936. Wright planned to build his architecture school in the nearby San Tan Mountains until a perceived slight by the town moved the future Taliesin West to Scottsdale. “It’s all about Wright’s ego; projects are successful or fail because of it,” Crago comments.  

One of the architect’s 11 proposed projects for Chandler was a redesign of the San Marcos, in which Wright-designed houses surrounded the updated resort. Their most ambitious proposed collaboration, however, was a resort located on the south flank of South Mountain called the San Marcos on the Desert. To fund the venture, Chandler mortgaged the San Marcos, but overreached, losing ownership of the hotel in 1936. He continued living at the resort for 14 more years until his death at age 91.

The resort’s new owner, E.W. Edwards, was a wealthy industrialist who spent winters at the San Marcos, toured Europe with Monet and golfed with Bobby Jones. In 1943, Edwards hired the debonair John Quarty to manage the property. A big personality, Quarty became the face of the resort, which he purchased in 1961. He and his wife, Angelle, thrived on hosting costume parties and displaying their dance skills.

“Quarty had a vision of how the hotel could evolve since the original generation who patronized it was aging,” Crago says. “He transformed it from a seasonal winter getaway for the wealthy to a resort that attracted celebrities, conferences and golfers.”

He also reached out to the local community. “Previously, the San Marcos had been closed to Chandler like a walled-off compound,” Crago says. “The locals began holding their parties and events at the resort.”

When Quarty died in 1979, the aging San Marcos closed, its future in doubt. In 1987, it reopened as a Sheraton with new conference rooms and accommodations. Again, however, the resort went briefly into receivership during the Great Recession until reopening in spectacular fashion as the Crowne Plaza San Marcos Golf Resort in 2013.

 

As part of the revival, and perhaps to meet Chandler’s posthumous approval, the resort obtained his 1935 Dodge coupe to display in the lobby. The hotel basement that once stored his ostrich feathers is now the Prohibition-themed lounge, The Ostrich, which features artisanal cocktails, and a bar and vintage circular booths rescued from the late Monti’s La Casa Vieja restaurant in Tempe.

The unmarked watering hole, along with the other spirits allegedly inhabiting the property, make the San Marcos a funky destination for fun-seekers. Staffers talk of ghostly “unregistered” guests who refuse to check out, including the typical forlorn lovers, tragic accident victims and one apparition who apparently is a bit of a neat freak.

 When workers demolished the resort’s basement walls to create The Ostrich in 2015, they chucked the bricks into a huge pile for reuse. “The basement’s only access was descending via a ladder from the locked Cibola Room,” Paul Gibson, the resort’s general manager, says. “When the guys returned after the weekend, all the bricks were symmetrically stacked against the wall like a piece of art.” 

“Maybe someone did it as a prank, but that would have been a heck of a lot of work,” Gibson muses. “I just wish someone – or something – would organize the paperwork covering my desk like that!”

Though its centurylong ride has been bumpy at times, the San Marcos is on top of its game again with its newfound hipster credentials. “The resort reminds me of the mythical Phoenix bird,” Crago says. “It has gone through several rough patches that it almost didn’t survive, only to be reborn in a different incarnation to flourish in the next era.”