Josias Joesler is celebrated as one of Tucson’s most influential architects, bringing styles from throughout the world in his creation of 400 commercial buildings, churches and homes designed for the city’s elite.
Backed by Tucson land developers John and Helen Murphey, Joesler was the creative passion behind many of the glorious Catalina Foothills dwellings of the 1930s and ’40s that dot the hillside today.
But less is known about the architectural influence of Joesler’s successor, chosen by the Murpheys to continue their work.
Making his own architectural history in Tucson was Mexican architect Juan Worner Baz, who was selected in 1959 to succeed the Swiss-born Joesler, who died in 1956.
Worner Baz designed iconic Tucson buildings and revered homes, including the Murpheys’ foothills dream home, the Broadway Village Annex, several complexes of smaller dwellings that originally served as vacation homes for the wealthy, and his final Tucson project, St. Philip’s Plaza, designed in 1984.
Worner Baz designed the towering sculpture at River Road and Via Entrada. Originally a fountain, it is said to have splashed passing motorists, and now serves as a waterless sculpture.
Worner Baz died earlier this year outside of Mexico City, leaving an architectural legacy in Tucson and Mexico.
His best work was completed here, say those who document and celebrate his accomplishments.
“I want everyone to know who Juan Worner Baz is,” said Jennifer Levstik, historic preservation consultant and lead planner for the city’s Historic Preservation office. As a consultant, Levstik collects documentation required for historic designation.
“I am really interested in Worner Baz and getting people aware of his work,” Levstik said. “I would like there to be a growing appreciation for him and for his take on the modernist movement growing in Tucson in the ’60s and ’70s.”
She said while the bulk of his work is not in Tucson, with only 14 documented projects, “his best work was in Tucson. Here he had benefactors willing to spend whatever it took to make his projects a reality.”
She said Worner Baz combined the best of both modern and Spanish styles. “His designs are clean and modern, but he does all of these interesting touches. It’s obvious his roots are in Mexico City. His aesthetic was different from what everyone was doing in Tucson.”
Appreciating his work most are those who live in his homes.
“Everybody who I run into who owns one of these properties really, truly loves them,” she said.
David Papanikolas has lived in his 1,500-square-foot home designed by Worner Baz for seven years. It’s part of the Catalina Foothills Condominiums, a development Worner Baz designed for the Murpheys in 1963.
This tranquil neighborhood set on 5½ acres was built as a collection of vacation rentals, with the Murpheys' son serving as the original caretaker.
Papanikolas is president of Alta Constructors, a design-build firm. While he did not know much initially about Worner Baz, he had an immediate appreciation for his work.
“It’s very much a blend of the Spanish style with modernism, with great attention to detail,” Papanikolas said. “I grew up in Tucson, and it’s very Tucson.”
Papanikolas appreciates the flow of his home and use of angles, creating “interesting found spaces.”
He has remodeled the kitchen and two bedrooms and baths, converting one bedroom into an office. The living room and octagonal dining room retain the original design.
Papanikolas cherishes the view from the living room, with its window wall that looks out on his patio.
While there are no patio walls, dense vegetation creates a private outdoor living space. Elements are contoured to the shape of the earth, and a winding path leads to a lovely community area with a pool and Koi pond, designed by Japanese gardener Taro Akutagawa, with whom Worner Baz collaborated.
Statues of saints, philosophers and animals – which he used at other properties, including the Broadway Village Annex – stand watch over the property.
Papanikolas appreciates how every room incorporates soft light and views of nature. “I love the indoor-outdoor feel. It’s so open. The light is amazing, but there is no direct exposure.”
Connie Graham lived in a Worner Baz home in the Catalina Townhomes neighborhood for nearly 30 years before selling it recently.
“The thing I liked best about the house is how it made people feel to be in it,” she said. “I feel this may have been due to the organic design, the shapes of the rooms and the way the home ideally used the lot it was on, opening to the city in the front and the backdrop of greenery.”
She had not heard of Worner Baz when she bought the home in 1985, but did her homework.
She so loved the design of her home, she made almost no changes.
She recently sold the burnt adobe townhome to Roberta Franzheim, who is using it as a guest home.
Franzheim, owner of Augustus Paris Antiques, owns two Joeslers, and was intrigued by the history of Worner Baz.
“Juan Worner Baz was all about angles,” Franzheim said. “He did a bit of what Frank Lloyd Wright did – his entrances are low. You are enveloped.”
Radiating off the kaleidoscopic, angular foyer, you can see into six rooms. She loves the open feeling and the view out to the patio.
“It almost feels like a terrarium,” Franzheim said. “He is very clever in his use of space. His work is more organic than Joesler’s.”
She said both Joesler and Worner Baz took chances with their designs, creating a look never before see in Tucson.
“The architects were brave, and John and Helen Murphey were even braver,” Franzheim said.
Her favorite spot is the patio and all of its flora and fauna.
“I have lived in France, and this place reminded me of a place in the south of France,” she said, with the brick giving a cobblestone feel.
“It’s very peaceful here – the best of Tucson living,” Franzheim said.
Francisco Romero Mitre, known as Kiko, has his Gallery Knext hair salon in a Joesler and lives in a Worner Baz.
While he did not know the name of the architect, Romero Mitre had been in a Worner Baz home a dozen years earlier. “I fell in love with the architecture, the aura,” Romero Mitre said.
When a 1,700-square-foot townhome at Posada Real – another community designed by Worner Baz – came on the market, Romero Mitre was quick to buy it.
“It was wonderful the way he positioned his living spaces – he really was magical in how he gave them the most incredible views, gardens, landscapes and simple but beautiful architecture,” he said.
“I call it urban hacienda. It gives me a very peaceful spirit.”
Romero Mitre restored some of the old feeling to the home, built in the ’70s. He pulled out all that was chartreuse and polished the concrete floors.
“I recaptured again the feeling of the house, what Worner Baz would have done,” he said. “I think if he were around he would be very happy. It has a really clean, fresh feeling.
“I just love this Sonoran-Tucsonan feeling of the house,” Romero Mitre said. “These are jewels and people appreciate them more as time goes by.”