Editor’s note: This is the next in our series exploring Tucson neighborhoods — the homes, the vibes, the people. Look for the Where We Live series in the Home + Life section of the Arizona Daily Star.
Harold Bell Wright was among the most popular American authors of his time, penning 19 novels — with 15 of them making their way to the silver screen.
In 1930, The New York Times called Wright “the narrator of the hopes and dreams of the great mass of American readers from New York to California.”
Many of those hopes and dreams came to life on the pages of books Wright wrote from the beloved desert home he built, eight miles east of downtown Tucson. Constructed in the early 1920s, Wright made Tucson his home until signs of encroaching development caused him to flee to California in 1936.
He made his mark on Tucson, donating to a variety of causes and arranging to host the world premier of “The Mine with the Iron Door” at the Rialto Theatre, according to historic neighborhood documentation.
The Wright home stands today in the heart of what would become the Harold Bell Wright Estates, near the busy intersection of East Speedway Boulevard and North Wilmot Road.
His 5,000-square-foot home looks much like it did in the ’20s and ’30s, when Wright was writing and playing host to guests that included Helen Keller, who explored prickly native vegetation with her fingertips.
“We are honored to be the caretakers of the Harold Bell Wright home,” said Madeline Friedman, whose husband, Barry, bought the home in the late 1970s. The two raised their blended family in the home, restoring some of it to its original beauty.
“We call it Harold’s Home and we try to honor his spirit.”
The Friedmans have albums of original photos of the home, some with Harold working at his desk. An article in the November 1927 issue of “Better Homes and Gardens” details the unique desert home. There are even postcards of the place.
The dining room and living room are reminiscent of the days when Wright and his wife hosted dinners in the home, with mahogany ceilings and stunning wooden floors.
Wright’s handiwork is seen throughout the home. He was an architect, builder and blacksmith. His striking stone fireplace, ornate light fixtures, tables, radiators, bird baths, barbecue and more accent the home and gardens.
His books are found on the shelves of the living room and his library. A secret passage way he built leads from the floor of a small closet in the library to a room in the basement “where he collected hooch during prohibition,” Madeline Friedman said.
Wright’s beloved dog, seen in many of his photos, is buried on the property.
Wright’s children come to visit when they are in town, to relive memories, Friedman said.
“I’m a Realtor, but I believe nobody owns anything,” she said. “You just pay for the privilege of living in it. And we feel honored to live here.”
Years after the Wrights left, the area was subdivided in the 1950s, with street names derived from the characters in his novels — Barbara Worth, Brian Kent, Corinth, Marta Hillgrove, Natachee, Printer Udell and Shepherd Hills. The neighborhood is known for redwood signs that mark the streets and park.
With 112 single-family dwellings, the neighborhood is roughly bounded by Wilmot Road on the west, Speedway on the north, El Dorado Hills subdivision on the east and Carondelet St. Joseph’s Hospital on the south. Most of the homes were built in the 1950s and are ranch style, constructed of burnt adobe.
Influential architects include Tom Gist, Arthur Brown, Henry Jaastad and Anne Rysdale.
In 1953, the Episcopal parish of St. Philip’s in the Hills obtained the large parcel in the southwest corner of the neighborhood for a mission church, which was subsequently elevated to a parish with a parochial school. St. Michael and All Angels remains an architectural Tucson landmark.
Residents keep Wright’s memory alive with a picnic and birthday cake in his honor.
“We sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to Harold and have a neighborhood meeting,” said Ricki Mensching, who moved into the neighborhood in 1983 with her husband, Joe.
“We immediately loved the neighborhood,” she said. “It’s so unique right in the middle of Tucson, yet this place is crazy with wildlife.”
Streets wander lazily through the neighborhood, with homes spread out on large desert lots.
“We really love the privacy,” she said. “The houses are so far apart and have so much vegetation all around. If I look out my window, I can’t see another house.”
From 2007 to 2011, Ricki Mensching was involved in the legwork required for historic designation of the neighborhood.
People move into the neighborhood and stay forever.
“People living in the neighborhood have lived here 40 or 45 years. Neighbors are there if you need them.”
Anne and Bill Wood and their children moved into the neighborhood from Fort Worth, Texas, in 1969.
“We looked all around Tucson and ended up buying this home, and I am so glad we did,” Anne Wood said.
“It’s a wonderful neighborhood. We are so lucky to live here. We were a very close-knit neighborhood. It’s so quiet, but we are right in the middle of everything.”
The neighborhood has gardening clubs, sewing clubs — and it doesn’t matter if you garden or sew.
“Some of my best friends are here in my neighborhood,” she said.
Much of the 1959 ranch home is original. The powder pink Westinghouse oven was recently replaced, but still standing is the Everfrost soda fountain, with freezer space for ice cream, a fountain for carbonated water to make your own soda and plenty of space for syrups and toppings.
“We kept big tubs of ice cream and made sundaes and sodas,” Anne Wood said. “The kids loved it.”
Neighbors traveled to Branson, Mo., to visit the Harold Bell Wright museum several years ago.
“It’s wonderful to live in a neighborhood with this kind of history,” she said.
Los Angeles physician Dr. Michael Fassett bought a Tom Gist-designed home in the neighborhood three years ago. Born in Tucson and a graduate of the University of Arizona College of Medicine, Fassett is drawn to the architecture of Gist and is helping to compile a book about Gist’s work for the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation. He has also been involved with projects regarding Gist’s work through the UA College of Architecture.
Fassett currently rents out the home and hopes to one day live there permanently.
“His architecture was a regional modern approach — low profile, open spaces, an indoor-outdoor feeling, using local materials like redwood and burnt adobe. He had a really good sense of how people should live in the desert.”
The 1959 ranch home on 1½ acres has stunning views of the Santa Catalina Mountains, and is furnished with period furnishings.
“The neighbors are wonderful, and I really like things that talk about the history of Tucson,” Fassett said. “The Harold Bell Wright neighborhood really embodies a lot about Tucson and its history.”