Sam McManis

Discoveries: The original Sun City still shines brightly in Arizona

The Del Webb Sun Cities Museum is housed in what its website calls the first model home built in the Phoenix suburb by Webb, one that was introduced to the public on Jan. 1, 1960.
The Del Webb Sun Cities Museum is housed in what its website calls the first model home built in the Phoenix suburb by Webb, one that was introduced to the public on Jan. 1, 1960. smcmanis@sacbee.com

Just for kicks, I decided to drive out to Sun City. The Sun City. The original “active retirement community,” birthed 55 years ago in what then was the vast desert west of Phoenix, but now is just another in a seemingly endless string of suburbs. I wanted to see how well it’s aged, given that the community now is old enough to gain admittance into its own senior Shangri-La.

So I made a hard left at Peoria, off the 101 Freeway, and followed the signs, both official (“Welcome to Sun City, The Fun City”) and unofficial (strip malls whose businesses featured names such as Valley Respiratory Services, Pain Center of Arizona, Sleep Institute, Imaging Center, Express Urgent Care, DaVita Dialysis), on streets lined with palm trees and saguaro and squat stucco buildings painted 50 shades of beige.

When I saw my first golf cart motoring between the ceramics club and the bowling alley, I knew I’d reached the spot, this Mecca of Metamucil, where the late builder and real estate magnate Del Webb first constructed a community that would change the way older adults would spend their so-called “Golden Years.” To heck with the nursing home – tee it up for 18 holes and then swim some laps before unwinding with a G&T on the back patio. That’s what Webb promised back in 1960 and, judging by the proliferation of “Sun Cities” and knockoffs dotting the farthest reaches of the country, he delivered.

This whole town constitutes a time capsule – yes, it’s 2015, but the rows of handsome, one-story ranch houses with manicured front yards of raked pebbles and tastefully arranged native plants and exceedingly litter-free streets hark back to more halcyon days – but I was looking specifically for the Del Webb Sun Cities Museum.

And there it was, at the head of one of Sun City’s major residential streets. If not for the sign (in large, easy-to-read, all-caps) you would’ve mistaken the museum for just another home, with two golf carts marked “His” and “Hers” parked in the carport. That’s because it was one of the original Sun City model homes, originally owned by Bob and Chloe MacDonald, who now have passed but remain in memory thanks to a tasteful silver-framed photo propped on an end table.

“We bought the home from their estate in 1989,” docent Betsy Harris tells our tour group.

I, of course, am so gauche as to ask what the two-bedroom, 1 bath, 750-square foot home sold for in 1960, and Harris doesn’t blink an eye. People ask all the time, and she rattled off the figures: “$8,500,” she says. “This was a nice home in 1960. It was on a golf course, which was unusual in those days. If you lived on a golf course, you had a lot of money. You paid an extra $600 for air-conditioning, which not all homes had out here back then.”

She didn’t reveal what a similar Sun City home might sell for now, but you’d need to add at least one zero and move the decimal point over.

No wonder that life-sized cutout of Del Webb in the living room, pointing at blown-up photographs of the crowd that flocked to the Jan. 1, 1960, opening, is smiling. The man made a killing, just as he figured. He knew people wanted to enjoy their sunset days, not be warehoused in fluorescent-lit structures where the highlight was the weekly canasta tournament. Webb was something of a swinger – he divorced his first wife and married a show girl; now that’s an “active” retirement – and he knew, at the very least, seniors would want to swing a golf club.

“There was an existing retirement (community in Phoenix), called Young Town,” Harris said. “The concept was different. This would be an ‘active’ retirement community. Del Webb’s organization went around and questioned (retired) people and asked what they didn’t like, and they said, ‘We’re promised all these amenities all these years (ago) and never got them. Del made sure all this stuff was in place.

“On opening day, they were worried no one would show up. They got 100,000 people. They sold 237 (houses) that first weekend. Huge success. They bought 10,000 acres below Grand (Avenue) and 10,000 above Grand. This land used to be a tiny agriculture town called Marinette, but he transformed it. Then, of course, they opened Sun City West.”

A map of the United States graces one wall of the museum, showing, in red, the states where Webb’s housing hegemony has taken hold. It looks a little like the electoral college map of the Reagan-Mondale 1984 presidential race – a sea of red.

“It’s important to know,” Harris said, “There are a lot of Sun Cities, but Del Webb sold to Pulte (Homes) in 2001, so Pulte built a lot of them. You’ll see Sun Cities all over. I’m from Indiana, and there’s a Del Webb Sun City there, but I can’t imagine anyone wanting to retire in Indiana.”

Indeed, people retire in Arizona or Florida for the sun and the promise of outdoor activities with their cohort. What Webb was selling was far more than a roof over people’s balding heads; rather, he was selling a lifestyle.

Take a look at this magazine advertisement preserved in the museum, circa 1960, reproduced in the museum. There’s a photo of a fit, trim but graying man sitting in the pool with his two grandsons. The copy reads, in part: “‘Gosh, Gramps, are you ever lucky! I’d rather visit you than go any place else in the world.’ And, you know something? He is lucky. For one thing, he lives a resort life on a modest income. An avid golfer, he has 18 in before 10:30 most mornings, then …”

The original Sun City was more than golf, though. It became a cultural touchstone. Sun City sponsored its own women’s professional softball team, the Sun City Saints (national champs, 1979), and its cheerleading squad, the Sun City Poms (average age: 72) performed in the Fiesta Bowl parade. There were tennis tournaments, ceramics fairs, arts and crafts classes, a theater troupe and, for a time, its own entertainment complex, the 108,000-square foot Sundome, built in 1980 in Webb’s sister community, Sun City West. Lawrence Welk was the first act to play the Sundome, and éminence grise such as Harry Belafonte, Rosemary Clooney, Tony Orlando and Bob Dylan performed there.

In 2013, alas, the Sundome met the construction wrecking ball, a rare financial misstep in Sun City’s history.

“That wasn’t realistic,” Harris said of the Sundome. “It was massive. It opened 1980, when we weren’t worried about energy usage. It cost a freakin’ fortune to air condition. ... It was a big, beautiful venue. Nobody wanted it.”

The Sundome may be gone, but the sun never sets on the community itself. Don’t scoff: Actuarial data shows we’re living longer and, presumably, with a better quality of life. Someday, all of us will considering shuffling off to a Sun City, where we can play Ultimate Frisbee every morning, drink craft beer on the back porch and, at night, attend that Beyoncé concert, where she’ll swivel those shapely artificial hips.

Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis

DEL WEBB SUN CITIES MUSEUM

10801 W. Oakmont Drive, Sun City, Ariz.

Hours: 1-4 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday through May 15; by appointment May 16-Sept. 14

Information: www.delwebbsuncitiesmuseum.org; (623) 974-2568

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