A flat-roof, brick home in the San Rafael Estates neighborhood of Tucson, Arizona
Photo by Kristen Brockel

Tucson’s Atomic Ranches

|By Louie Christensen

|Photography by Brielle Farmer

If you haven’t noticed, the Midcentury Modern look is back. Homes from this magical era are being splashed across architecture and lifestyle magazines, and home renovators and interior designers have caught on. Far from the glitz and glamor of the Hollywood hills (and it’s astronomical real estate prices) sits a true midcentury modern diamond in the rough…Tucson, Arizona.

It’s easy to view Tucson as a city that grew out of a Wild West town, filled to the brim with nothing but Spanish Mission architecture and Santa Fe styled homes. The reality is that Tucson is a midcentury boomtown. Tucson’s population exploded during the 1950’s and 60’s, filling the town with thousands of midcentury modern ranch homes now known by many as “Atomic Ranches”.

There are hundreds of stunning Atomic Ranches, like the recently purchased Camino Arco hilltop estate designed by Tom Gist, scattered throughout Tucson’s picturesque Catalina Foothills. But, many are financially out of reach for the average homebuyer. Fortunately, there are quite a few affordable midcentury modern neighborhoods across Tucson longing for buyers who will cherish the bold style and restore the timeless character these historic homes posses. 

Windsor Park

Windsor Park consists of over 120 midcentury modern homes featuring bold rooflines, double carports and most importantly…large windows. Originally advertised as “almost living outdoors” with more than 575 square feet of glass in a 3 bedroom home, the builders clearly knew how important the beauty of Tucson’s desert was (and continues to be) to Tucsonans.

The combination of modern design and quiet neighborhood, featuring almost a dozen cul-de-sacs to ensure quiet streets, landed Windsor Park the American Home Magazine’s “Best Home for the Money” in 1963.

Indian Ridge Terrace

Billed as being built “For gracious suburban living”, this midcentury modern suburbia was built by the then famous Lusk Corporation from 1955 to 1964. Using a network of cul-de-sacs and natural desert vegetation, the neighborhood was designed to feel extremely private; and through careful planning the builders promised that “individuality is preserved by insuring that no identical homes in design and lot arrangement appear on the same street”.

The homes were originally built with carports instead of garage doors not only to save on home costs for the buyer, but also to retain a sense of “neighborly openness” among residents. Thanks to the feeling of privacy, many original residents felt comfortable enough having the front of their homes built with massive front windows, adding a sense of pizzazz and modernity to the Atomic Ranches found throughout. It cannot be over emphasized how important individuality was for Indian Ridge Terrace, so you’ll be able to find your perfect home no matter what your unique midcentury modern tastes call for.

San Rafeal Estates

You know your neighborhood is onto something as a developer when it sells out of new homes within two years, and that’s exactly what happened to the award winning San Rafael Estate neighborhood in the mid 50’s.

This is a rather small neighborhood, consisting of three small streets branching off of the two main drags. Many of the homes carry the same clean roofline, and flat burnt adobe brick facade, but some have upkicked A-line gables and large windowed walls. These understated homes may not tickle the fancy of hardcore Midcentury Modernists, but would be perfect for someone looking for something more approachable.

A ranch house in Tucson, Az's San Rafael neighborhood
A brick ranch-style house in San Rafael

Harold Bell Wright Estates

Harold Bell Wright was among the most popular American authors in the 1920’s, so popular that 15 of his 19 novels were turned into motion pictures. Much of his work was written from his beautiful desert home hiding in little Tucson, Arizona. In 1936, Harold felt that Tucson was becoming overdeveloped and moved to a ranch just outside of San Diego, California—a move that sounds a bit ironic today.

The area around his Tucson property was later subdivided and developed, but the roads that crisscross the area were named after some of his famous character like Barbara Worth Drive and Marta Hillgrove. 

These properties sit on larger acreages than most homes in the midtown Tucson area. This inspired many of the architects to incorporate more Spanish Mission and California Sheik features into their designs. What we are left with is a smorgasbord of styles, lot sizes and inspirations that come together to form a unique neighborhood with a character all its own.

Wilshire Heights

Originally advertised in 1954 as “your calling card to a lifetime of happiness–Beautiful Wilshire Heights…Building restrictions that reflect your good taste.”

A little slice of 1950s paradise in Wilshire Heights

Unlike many building developments of this size, Wilshire Heights did not have a solo homebuilder, rather several architects designed homes of all midcentury shapes and styles that fell within the neighborhood’s aforementioned tasteful building restrictions. They range from rather simple, to those that are unapologetically midcentury modern; you can even find homes from the nationally renowned architects Tom Gist, William Wilde and Arthur Brown.

Glenn Heights

Name a commercial midcentury building in Tucson and there’s a really good chance it was designed by William and Sylvia Wilde. The couple designed homes and buildings together until Sylvia passed away in 1954. William’s designs became noticeably more masculine and structural, almost as if Sylvia held all of his grace and delicacy.

While William is better known for the beautiful commissioned homes and commercial buildings he designed across Tucson, he also built the four model homes for the Glenn Heights Neighborhood. His four designs were then duplicated throughout the small neighborhood, and slightly customized to the buyer’s liking. This allowed the average Joe to move into a well thought out and trendy home. Today you are offered the same option.

Winterhaven

Now, If you are a Tucsonan, you are probably thinking about Christmas. Winterhaven may be famous for the annual Festival of Lights they put on through the Christmas season, where the majority of the neighborhood decorate their homes for the holidays. But, underneath all of those twinkling lights and Christmas themed cutouts hide some drop dead gorgeous homes.

Towering Aleppo pines are a fixture in Winterhaven

Walking along Winterhaven’s wide (really wide), meandering streets lined with Aleppo pine trees, hedges and front lawns, you almost feel like you’re in a quiet Midwest town. That was no accident. The builder, C.B. Richards, drew his inspiration from the community of Shaker Heights located just outside of Cleveland, Ohio…which was originally based on a British neighborhood built in 1912. Like Shaker Heights, the residents of Winterhaven had to meet minimum construction cost and to match the neighborhood’s aesthetic. The first homes were completed in 1949 and by 1961 all but seven were built. Because of it’s based on X which came from Y heritage, the homes in Winterhaven have a very quaint—how should I put it—Midwestern midcentury atomic ranch styled English country home feel to them, with each pulling slightly heavier from one style than the next. That sounds like quite the mixture, but it makes for a neighborhood that feels like home even when it isn’t dressed in its Christmas best.

Villa Catalina Townhomes

There are plenty of condos in Tucson that were inspired by midcentury modern styles. If you squint, or catch it at the right angle you can really see it…and then there are the Villa Catalina Townhomes. If Midcentury Modern was an aura, you could see the glow coming from this corner of town from miles away.

Seriously, the only thing missing from this scene is Wendy Peppercorn sitting in the lifeguard tower, Natalie Wood smoking on her patio while Carry Grant mixes a few Gibsons at the wet bar. (How much would round the clock period actors cost?)

Classic midcentury design abides at this 55+ community

This complex is begging for residents who understand what a true treasure this place is, people who can fully embrace the Midcentury Modern lifestyle, and make it something special.

Broadmoor-Broadway

This beautiful neighborhood is tucked behind the Sunshine Mile, a storefront lined strip of Broadway Boulevard originally built during the midcentury that is set for a beautiful renovation in the coming months. What could be better than driving by a mile and a half of stunning commercial midcentury modern architecture before pulling into your equally historic home?

The majority of the neighborhood was built between 1945 and 1955, which predates many of the more “out there” designs that came to represent midcentury modern architecture. While that may disappoint some, these homes carry an extra “classic Tucson” feel that will send nostalgic vibes through any Tucsonan that grew up in midtown. 

Decidedly Tucson details compliment this classic ranch house in Broadmoor-Broadway

Like Wilshire Heights, you can find homes designed by Tucson’s top midcentury architects, and also some more affordable copycats. There are some true gems hiding in this nationally recognized Historic District if you’re lucky enough to find one.

Special Acknowledgement:

There may not be a more iconic midcentury modern designer across Arizona than Ralph Haver. He designed homes that were perfectly styled for the Arizona climate and lifestyle, calling them Perfect Arizona Type Home (PAT Home). Featuring a 1:12 low pitched gable roof, wide floor plans, clerestory and Lucky 7 shaped windows, his homes have become synonymous with midcentury modern homes in Arizona.

Ralph Haver lived in the Phoenix Valley, so that is where the majority of his work resides. But, you can find some of his PAT Homes and other designs across Tucson’s midtown and eastside. Consider yourself extremely fortunate if you can find one in your target neighborhood.