This Spanish Colonial Revival church, designed by Tucson architect Josias Thomas Joesler and completed in 1936 as the centerpiece of the Catalina Foothills Estates, was a catalyst for the development of the entire Catalina Foothills as an affluent residential area. The Catalina Foothills Estates with St. Philip’s in the Hills at its core was extremely successful, not only in promoting Tucson as a resort destination and drawing the community’s future expansion northward, but in furthering America’s romantic fascination with the Southwest.
Real estate developer John W. Murphey (1898–1977) and his wife and business partner Helen Murphey (1894–1990) envisioned the Catalina Foothills Estates as a themed and master-planned community anchored by a “Mexican” plaza headed by a church. John Murphey, a native Tucsonan, studied engineering and geology at the University of Arizona where he met and married Helen Geyer, who had moved to Tucson from Massachusetts. Early on, the couple lived in a tent in the desert to maintain a claim to the homestead that would form part of the Catalina Foothills Estates (they acquired the remainder through auction in 1928). The Murpheys felt they could sell houses at higher prices in the then-remote Catalina Foothills, four miles north of Tucson, by creating a desert resort environment that would appeal to the romantic imaginations of potential buyers, particularly wealthy Easterners, while competing with such locales as Los Angeles and Santa Barbara.
By the time they began work on this project, John Murphey’s eponymous building company (founded 1918) had completed more than 200 houses in Tucson. With Leo B. Keith, an early business collaborator who became a name partner in 1936, he built the Old World Addition subdivision (1927–1928, now demolished) near the University of Arizona, the Broadway Village Shopping Center (1939) at Country Club and Broadway, and residences in numerous Tucson neighborhoods including Sam Hughes, Colonia Solana, and El Encanto.
The Murpheys met architect Josias Joesler in California in 1926, at the recommendation of prominent Santa Barbara–based architect George Washington Smith, whom the Murpheys had initially approached to design their Tucson residential projects. At the time, Zurich-born Joesler was newly settled in Los Angeles after some years spent working and traveling throughout Europe, North Africa, and Latin America. In 1927, the Murpheys convinced Joesler to come to Tucson, beginning a thirty-year relationship that would last until the architect’s death in 1956. Joesler became as a leading architect in Tucson, designing over 400 buildings, mostly residences for the Murpheys, in a variety of historicist and modern styles. He blended romantic revival motifs alluding to distant cultures with local building traditions, producing a distinctive regional image.
The Catalina Foothills Estates became the Murpheys’ and Joesler’s signature collaboration. The Murpheys committed the land and covered most of the construction costs for development of the 7,000-acre site. Through design and deed restrictions, they preserved the dramatic topography, the impressive views, and natural vegetation—all of which had attracted them to the foothills in the first place.
The conceptual heart of their scheme was St. Philip’s Plaza, which they developed as a mixed-use community center that would serve as a gateway to the residences. The plaza included not only St. Philip’s in the Hills Episcopal Church, but St. Philip’s Park (1936), the El Merendero Tea Room and Gift Shop (1937), the Catalina Foothills Estates Sales Office and Joesler Studio (1937), the Hutton Webster Studio and Residence (1939), and the Murphey-Keith Building Company Office (1940). Joesler designed all of the buildings in the plaza and served as the supervisory architect for the entirety of the Catalina Foothills Estates.
Joesler oversaw the surveying the individual properties, which averaged over four acres per plot, and, of course, he controlled the architectural design of the 200-plus residences, including a number of speculative houses intended to attract potential buyers as well as custom residences for specific clients. Most of estate’s houses were executed in variations of the Spanish Colonial Revival style and featured architectural details such as arches, breezeways, brick and stucco, clay tile roofs, courtyards, wrought-iron ornamentation, and other rustic elements.
St. Philip’s in the Hills was to the Catalina Foothills Estates what the village church was throughout Mexico: it is the center of community life, which the site plan makes obvious since all residential streets radiate outward from the church plaza, following the contours of the land.
In designing St. Philip’s, Joesler evoked a Spanish mission church. He focused the nave on a 12-foot-high arched window of clear plate glass, which frames a view of the Santa Catalina Mountains beyond while repeating the entry arch. A dozen stained glass windows created by Francisco Garduno Canedo admit colored light, while three chandeliers illuminate the dark, carved wood beams in the flat ceiling overhead. The 3-to-5-foot-thick adobe walls are coated with stucco painted a warm white inside and out, with a row of burnt adobe bricks outlining the parapet. The deeply recessed entry doors, with their small pilot doors typify “Mudejar” design, a mixture of Spanish, Moorish, and Mexican influences. Beams, pews, and an altar made from cedar logs grown on Mexico’s southwest coast and carved by a Mexican artisan reinforce the mission concept. Aisles are differentiated from the central nave by twisted, cast-stone pillars with Corinthian capitals supporting the external arched arcades. The primary facade is an understated fusion of historicist and modern elements. While the rust stains from the ancient bell imbue the facade with the patina of age, the asymmetrical form, unadorned surfaces, and untrimmed openings recall the early modernist work of Southern California architect Irving Gill.
The church was completed in time for Christmas Eve services in 1936. As the congregation grew, so did the church building. Remodeling by Gordon Luepke in the late 1950s included moving the original 12-foot plate-glass window behind the freestanding altar 52 feet to the north, doubling the size of the sacristy and widening the nave with by one bay. Other additions included a baptistery, three cloistered gardens, classrooms, offices, and a nursery, all following the established Spanish Colonial Revival style. In 1986, Edward H. Nelson stabilized the original structure and added a campanile tower; a three-manual pipe organ was also installed at this time. Further additions by Cain, Nelson, Wares, Cook and Associates followed in the late 1990s.
The success of the Catalina Foothills Estates led to additional low-density developments that established the entire foothills as an affluent residential area. This popularity ultimately led to higher-density development and increased transportation demands that erased much of the area’s rural character. In addition to the church, four Joesler-designed buildings still stand in St. Philip’s Plaza, despite alterations and relocations to accommodate roadwork. One of the adobe buildings, the former Catalina Foothills Estates Sales Office and Joesler Studio, features a front portico supported by wood posts that are deliberately cut lower toward the center to create a purposefully sagging roofline. This not only suggests advanced age, it also conveys the character and charm that is the legacy of Joesler and the Murpheys. In developing St. Philip’s in the Hills and the Catalina Foothills Estates, they were not only selling real estate, they were setting the tone of Tucson’s architectural character for decades to come.
Cox, Jean, “St. Philip’s in the Hills Episcopal Church,” Pima County, Arizona. National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, 2004. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.
Jeffery, R. Brooks. Joesler and Murphey – An Architectural Legacy for Tucson.Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1994.
Nequette, Anne M., and R. Brooks Jeffery. A Guide to Tucson Architecture.Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2002.
Patterson, Ann, and Mark Vinson. Landmark Buildings: Arizona’s Architectural Heritage.Phoenix: Arizona Highways, 2004.