COSMETICS MOGUL ONCE OWNED PROPERTY

Ranch house with a story discovers niche as a B&B

Guests are finding El Rancho Merlita through the Internet
2010-06-01T00:00:00Z Ranch house with a story discovers niche as a B&BDale Quinn Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
June 01, 2010 12:00 am  • 

A bed and breakfast has opened at the Tucson ranch house of the late cosmetics legend Merle Norman.

El Rancho Merlita Ranch House Bed and Breakfast opened in March and has seen fairly steady business since then, said owner Diana Osborne. Guests have been staying in the main house's four rooms nearly every weekend, she said.

"Amazingly enough, they are finding us on the Internet," she said.

Osborne, a Tucson architect, and her husband, John, bought the northeast-side house and the surrounding 13 acres in late 2004 from Tom Dixon, Norman's longtime assistant and secretary.

While the Osbornes were tempted to move into the property, they decided to turn it into a bed and breakfast, seeing that as consistent with the way Norman used the property.

Norman, an entrepreneur who launched her cosmetics business in the 1930s in Southern California, used the 1950s ranch house as a retreat for her friends and colleagues.

The property, at 1924 N. Corte El Rancho Merlita, near North Pantano and East Wrightstown roads, also has a guest house with four rooms that Osborne plans to open as an additional bed and breakfast by the end of the year.

Right out of the gate, though, El Rancho Merlita faces a challenging market. The tourism industry recently has been tough on bed-and-breakfast inns, said Marion Hook, owner of the Adobe Rose Inn at 944 N. Olsen Ave. Tucson's searing summer heat doesn't help, Hook added.

"I think it's a challenging climate to open any small business at the moment," Hook said.

The inns survive by using the Internet effectively, generating positive word of mouth and collaborating with one another when necessary. Hook said owners and innkeepers will refer customers to other businesses when their rooms are full and they can't take on additional guests.

But Tucson's bed-and-breakfast inns provide a comforting niche for travelers who are looking for something more personal, said Kimberly Schmitz, a spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Tucson Convention & Visitors Bureau. New ones that open up add value to the area as a travel destination, Schmitz said.

Osborne said that even in the challenging economy El Rancho Merlita has attracted guests from California, Utah, Colorado and "back East." She's keeping prices low through the summer - $75 to $175 - to generate buzz.

Her innkeeper, Pattie Bell, said she fell in love with the property when she first saw it. The ranch, which Osborne subdivided down to 3 acres, has a pool and a hot tub, and is frequently visited by wildlife.

It has a historic, sturdy feel, Bell said. In the living room, wood beams on the ceiling radiate like sunbeams from a pink-tinted fireplace. The porch, which stretches across the expanse of the house, is deep enough that it's always shady.

Sometimes when guests come to visit, they see little reason to leave the ranch, Bell said.

Contact reporter Dale Quinn at 573-4197 or dquinn@azstarnet.com

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