Situated on a ninety acre tract of rolling foothills in the Tucson Mountains, surrounded by untouched Sonoran Desert and centuries-old saguaros, stands Rancho de las Lomas, a surviving iconic example of Guest Ranch architecture and the most important design achievement of one of America’s first female architects, Margaret Fulton Spencer.
In the first half of the twentieth century, Southern Arizona became a tourist destination for Americans and Europeans searching for vestiges of a mythic “old west.” Entrepreneurial ranchers, seeing a financial advantage, began catering to this new clientele by developing heritage experiences where guests could spend a season living as cowhands and riding the range. The emergence of the “guest ranch,” fueled by sunny weather, the popularity of cowboy novels, and Western films, created a tourism industry that would expand beyond the bunkhouse at old working cattle ranches to become an early example of luxury heritage resorts promoting “authentic Western” experience, nature, and Southwest culture.
It was in the midst of the guest ranch boom that Margaret Fulton Spencer moved to Tucson with her daughters after the death of her husband, American impressionist painter Robert Spencer. Margaret Spencer, born in 1883 in Philadelphia, had attended Bryn Mawr College from 1901 – 1903 and New York School of Applied Design through 1904, after which she studied art under famed tonalist painter L. Birge Harrison at the Art Students League in Woodstock, NY from 1904-1907. She enrolled as the only woman in architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) from 1907 – 1909 and was initiated in 1929, as the the second female member of American Institute of Architects.
Arriving in Tucson in 1938, Margaret purchased a 190-acre former chicken farm at the edge of the Tucson Mountains. Over the next several years, Spencer designed and oversaw the construction of Rancho de las Lomas. The design and construction was in the architectural tradition of Mary Jane Colter, whose work at the Grand Canyon for the Fred Harvey Company had helped define the regional architecture of the Southwest.
Spencer’s architectural work had been focused on historic preservation and buildings that stylistically blended into their context. In Tucson, she continued this artistic development using local and natural building materials, rocks and sandstone to create a distinct and charming picturesque collection of 16 cottages and guest quarters that would become her architectural masterpiece.
Frank Hildebrand wrote of the buildings for the Tucson Daily Citizen in December 1959:
“The form each took depended on the caprice of the Mexican laborers, for rigid architectural design was ignored in an attempt to invest that ranch with a particularly individualistic atmosphere. Rock was blasted from the mountains for building material. Mrs. Spencer and her two daughters, Margaret and Ann worked alongside laborers laying walls and flagstone.”
In the early years of the ranch, Spencer managed the property, assisted by Mrs. William Neil Smith of New York. The original configuration could accommodate 30 guests in a variety of rooms and suites. During the early 1940s, Las Lomas hosted numerous parties and events. Famous guests including Clark Gable, Hopalong Cassidy, Eleanor Roosevelt and Frank Lloyd Wright. In March of 1943, the Chicago Tribune noted that in the early 1940s the Ranch hosted and was the location of the Geneva College for Women, a progressive women’s school affiliated with Mount Holyoke College previously housed at the Chateau de Bossey in Celigny, Switzerland.
By the mid-1940s the buildings were reconfigured to accommodate 60 guests and spencer leased the property and handed operations first to Theodore C. Capen and then Mr. and Mrs. M.A. Marvin.
After World War II, guest ranches continued to develop and change to meet new market demands. In the post war era, the trappings of the West were all that were needed to create a “guest ranch” destination. The urban “dude ranch” was born and focused more on kitsch than cows, with amenities, location, and the occasional cookout with a faux chuckwagon and cowboy songs under the stars. Although places like Rancho de las Lomas continued to hang on in this new competitive market, the golden age of the dude ranch was coming to an end. Spencer died in 1966 and the property, converted to longer-term rentals, became an artist colony. In 1971 a fire damaged the main house and it was never fully restored.
Today, Rancho de las Lomas is for sale. Sitting on just under 90 acres, this remarkable property is at high risk for redevelopment. With no preservation easements, no historic designations, and few regulatory options, the future of Margaret Fulton Spencer’s most important architectural work in its undisturbed desert setting is at risk of being lost forever. With a thoughtful preservation plan and a preservation-minded buyer, this property could make an incredible boutique hotel, extended-stay winter retreat, or luxury spa.
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