By Patricia Keegan
Returning on Memorial Day to my favorite oasis in the southwest, Tucson’s Arizona Inn, I carried with me the memories of my last visit two years ago and, with it, the anticipation of pure tranquility. During 2006, the Inn celebrates its 75th anniversary.
I wondered, as I traveled to Arizona, if the crass, flamboyant outside world had clutched the Inn in its greedy tentacles.
As I walked through the Inn’s impressive library, visiting the glass-enclosed, rare books and reclining on soft cushioned sofas, I was delighted to discover that the Inn is still intact, its ambience is still robust. It remains true to the legacy of Isabella Greenway’s timeless promise to provide guests with privacy, repose and sunshine in a quietly elegant setting. Today, Will Conroy, filmmaker and son of proprietor Patty Doar, leads the Inn into the future.
A visitor’s curiosity may be aroused by the several portraits of Isabella Greenway on the walls of the library which show a beautiful woman who exudes a compelling strength of character.
With the help of Kristie Miller’s excellent biography, Isabella Greenway, An Enterprising Woman published in 2004 by University of Arizona Press, one finds an intriguing portrayal of the famous Isabella. She is described as an unusual combination of drive, ambition and good looks -- a woman considered ahead of her time. The first congressperson from Arizona, Isabella was a close friend of Eleanor Roosevelt and a key political player in the New Deal. A successful businesswoman, she ventured into ranching, the airline industry, furniture manufacturing and hotel management. She also had time for true love and romance.
For past and future patrons of the Inn, the Isabella Greenway biography is a must read -- a clearly defined thread with the past that explains why so many of us find a real attachment to this oasis of refined living.
Tucked away in a residential corner of Tucson, fringed in pink Bougainvilleas and filled with the sounds of chattering birds, the Arizona Inn stands in a gracious world created seven decades ago by Isabella. Today, with its 17th through 19th-century antiques and ritual afternoon tea in the library, it maintains and cherishes all the refined elements of a bygone age.
Crossing its threshold is like stumbling across a great biography --a gentle introduction into the life and tastes of a remarkable woman, Isabella Greenway, who’s life journey shows a unique ability to bring together all the diverse pieces of her mind and soul. A Renaissance woman, she was first a debutante, then a bridesmaid in the wedding of Eleanor Roosevelt; she married, became a mother, was twice widowed, was an entrepreneur and grandmother, and eventually became Arizona’s first Congresswoman.
After only a few hours exploring the inn, which has 86 rooms and three private houses, I had the distinct impression that I had entered Isabella’s world. Her serene, yet lively, spirit exudes from every corner of the hotel’s décor with the power to keep the past very much alive.
With my room key in hand, and the outline of the Catalina Mountains in the distance, I crossed the rich, green grass, past the ping pong table and under an archway, to find number 121, a deluxe suite. The rooms were huge and airy, with high, open-beamed ceilings and wood floors, a fireplace with antique settees, a huge walk-in closet and two nice-sized bathrooms, abundant in towels and all the amenities. Standing in the center of the suite, with a soft breeze issuing from front and back terraces, I could feel the spirit of this tranquil setting. Taking a deep breath, I was exultant: “What a wonderful discovery,' I said aloud.
The Mediterranean style architecture is governed by a simplicity that I associated with northern Malaysia or the island of Mustique in the Caribbean. I could be anywhere in the world. Outside my door was a tree and shady umbrella, with table and chairs, where I could read and write in complete solitude. Around the corner and across a labyrinth of flagstone, zigzagging paths, past flowers and trees, was a hidden Olympic swimming pool completely screened by fragrant bougainvilleas and oleander trees. Next to the pool are tennis courts and an exercise center. The Inn lies on 14 acres of manicured lawns and gardens.
Dining with Patty Doar, owner and proprietor of the Inn and granddaughter of Isabella, was a memorable affair in many ways. Besides learning more about Isabella, I experienced one of the most creative cuisines found anywhere in the world, and rated at the top among Tucson’s many restaurants. I enjoyed a five-course dinner, which included mushroom crusted salmon wrapped in asparagus, and a sea bass herb crepe. Intrigued by the meeting of French sauces and Southwestern cuisine, I met award-winning Chef Odell Baskerville, a witty, enthusiastic man who takes pride in the flair and creativity he expresses so well in his art.
“I call it contemporary American International -- perhaps not the most cutting edge, but very well received by local clientele.” Baskerville described some of the history of his kitchen. “I don’t use any preservatives, and I depend a lot on my spice grinder. We have been able to track our kitchen’s influences as far back as 1935, when the cuisine here was totally French. We touch on all the different cuisines that have influenced Americans and their way of eating -- but it is still based on French technique.”
The dining room has become the “Who’s who” meeting place for business dinners and luncheons in Tucson. Baskerville has made the Arizona Inn a superb dining experience, and I would guess the secret lies in his imaginative combinations as well as his light, but interesting, sauces. The coveted Silver Spoon award may very well be repeated for the foreseeable future.
Breakfast by the pool was the epitome of relaxation, the buffet was abundant in fresh fruit and yogurt and all the usual American breakfast delights. Although I truly enjoyed the selections as well as the orange and gardenia trees around me, a café au lait was hard to find.
In a way, the birth of the Arizona Inn was an afterthought for Isabella who, in 1927, was very involved in helping disabled veterans of WWI, and their families, make a living in Tucson, which, because of its climate, was a haven for wounded combat veterans. In February, 1927, she founded the Arizona Hut, an enterprise that made commercially salable furniture, and by April, sales of hand-hewn household items were in full force. By the end of 1928, the Hut had a gift shop, a manufacturing plant, and outlets in Marshall Fields, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bonwit Teller and Abercrombie and Fitch. With the 1929 stock market crash and a failing domestic economy, Isabella Greenway found herself in a dilemma, left with a warehouse full of furniture. A friend commented that she had enough furniture to open a hotel.
“The Inn is here only because of the furniture,” explains Patty Doar on a tour of the hotel. “My grandmother created this Inn in 1930 as a simple, home-like cottage hotel, which is how she first described it. From the beginning, everything was designed to give its guests not glitz, not newness, but European-style comfort and privacy.”
Examples of the work of the veterans are to be found throughout the Inn: two hand carved banquettes grace the beautiful Victorian style library, which also holds a grand bookcase filled with the classics, including one of my favorites, Romain Rolland. At Christmas the room holds a 15 ft. decorated pine tree. The library has fascinating paintings -- one of Isabella’s husband, looking young, healthy and handsome, who tragically contracted tuberculosis. Isabella nursed him for almost a decade before he died.
Another painting, done in naïve style, was a brightly colored polygram of the Arizona Inn’s history, painted in 1930 by Allen Mardon. I watched a baby guest attracted by the colors, pointing her finger to get her mother’s attention. She was obviously a born art connoisseur.
Every room at the Inn has a sample vintage selection of desks, dining room tables and chairs. The Hut’sfurniture has a simple, naïve style; some pieces are painted, and all are hewn from a variety of woods: walnut, mahogany, cherry and maple. It is a delight to tour the Inn and discover the past with the granddaughter of Isabella Greenway, whose life story I had come to admire so much. Among Isabella’s art collection are some poignant pieces from the last paintings of a vanishing world of Indians. In the hotel bar she displays artifacts she picked up in her travels to Rhodesia and a collection of Audubon prints which had been presented to her by the artist.
When we came to the house Isabella designed and had once lived in, I was intrigued. It was across the street from the hotel and mostly obscured behind a gate and a convergence of flowering trees. In the foreground was an oval pool and gardens. There are also patches of desert, which as Doar explained, “Were kept to see a bunny rabbit or a pheasant running around.” Almost on cue, we saw a beautiful wild pheasant strut by, adding more color and life to the surroundings. “That pheasant has been here a few days now, and I don’t want any harm to come to it,” Doar says.
This private home, with eight bedrooms, was built in 1949, and each room contains furniture from the Hut, which provides a distinctive, old feeling. On a wall in the living room I saw a painting of a beautiful woman.
“Yes, that is Isabella,” said her granddaughter. “She was described as an absolute beauty, abundant in life. She also dressed beautifully and was a wonderful nurse.”
In a little anecdotal memory of childhood, Doar recalled an evening when she had a terrible headache and fever. The house was filled with company, and nobody was paying much attention, but her grandmother noticed and stayed up with her all night, applying cold compresses. “I was completely well by morning,” she smiled.
Isabella’s house, as well as two other houses on the property, can be rented from two nights to an entire month. Leaving her home, my one regret was that I would never meet Isabella Greenway. Along with many others, I can look forward to her biography, written by Kristie Miller, published by University of Arizona Press, and due in the fall of 2004.
Even before visits by Clarke Gable and Gary Cooper, and ever since, the Arizona Inn has had a continuous flow of the rich and famous, their privacy always well protected, nobody ever divulges any names. All are no doubt attracted by the complete privacy the hotel offers in a unique and tranquil setting. Seventy years of continuous family ownership has earned the hotel a place on the National Register of Historic Places and a Zagat rating as one of the 100 best hotels in the country. Travel and Leisure andConde Nast include the Inn among their best places to stay worldwide.
For more information and reservations: (800) 933-1093, or visit www.arizonainn.com.