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He invented SW vibe that enriches Tucson

He invented SW vibe that enriches Tucson

Exhibit shows how architect changed our look

  • Updated

One of Tucson's best known architects was hired by developers John and Helen Murphey in 1928 to create nostalgia for a Southwestern high style that never existed in Tucson.

The marketing plan worked so well that even today a home designed by Josias Joesler brings a premium price, and some real estate agents even advertise "Joesleresque" homes.

What that means is anybody's guess. Josias Joesler was "an architectural linguist" conversant in many styles, said architectural historian R. Brooks Jeffery, who spoke about the topic at the opening of an exhibition of Joesler drawings at the University of Arizona Library Special Collections.

Joesler worked in a dozen different styles of architecture and specialized in "revival" of styles that never existed here and weren't necessarily adapted to the climate.

Still, said Jeffery, he is one of the most important influences on Tucson architecture.

He may not have created an original form but he and the Murpheys painstakingly added unique detail to borrowed form. They were a partnership, Jeffery said, and they transformed land development here in the first part of the last century.

Joesler was prolific, with more than 400 Tucson buildings bearing his architectural stamp.

His first commissions from the Murpheys were not all that distinguished, said Jeffery.

"In 1928, he had 56 projects," said Jeffery. "He was really cranking them out, building four-squares, a room in every corner."

Most of those homes were built around the University of Arizona in what are now Sam Hughes, Blenman-Elm, Jefferson Park and Rincon Heights neighborhoods. Many were razed as the University Medical Center developed.

Jeffery said Joesler and the Murpheys are best known for moving Tucson's growth into the Foothills, dotting the hilltops at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains with exclusive homes and building St. Philip's in the Hills Episcopal Church and plaza at East River Road and North Campbell Avenue.

The Murpheys had bought 7,000 acres, for their development of what became Catalina Foothills Estates.

The church and plaza provided a staging area for the Murpheys' development, with a sales office, Joesler's own offices and a tea room.

Behind the church altar was a huge window with a view of those Foothills for sale. "I'm convinced that Murphey was selling his development, even on Sunday morning," said Jeffery.

Joesler was born in Switzerland and educated in Germany and France. He plied his trade in Europe, Cuba and Mexico before moving to California and later Tucson. That host of influences produced his polyglot portfolio.

He built small-scale versions of Tudor mansions, Swiss chalets and Italianate villas. Art deco, Moderne and Modern - you name it, he built it. His revival work focused on Spanish Colonial, Pueblo and California Mission styles.

Many of Joesler's buildings were designed to look immediately old. Broadway Village, often called Tucson's first suburban shopping center, has mismatched walls, meant to convey the notion of a plaza built over decades, Jeffery said.

In the Foothills, Joesler and the Murpheys added touches of antiquity to the homes they built on ridge tops, situated for views.

On their many travels, the Murpheys collected decorative tiles and wrought-iron work. They became part of a Joesler-Murphey building kit that included ceiling beams, wall niches, stained concrete floors, tin accents, hand-carved wooden doors, iron weather vanes and white-washed burnt-adobe walls.

"He transported many architectural styles to Tucson," said Jeffery, "and popularized them particularly to an elite class that was looking for a connection to a romanticized view of the Southwest."

"Beyond the superficial decoration, he also had a great understanding of creating spaces that had a great sense of scale and proportion," Jeffery said. His Foothills homes have enclosed patios and porches and preserve as much natural terrain as possible.

That sense of design and careful siting still attracts buyers, said Heidi Baldwin, a Realtor who lives in a Joesler home and specializes in Foothills properties.

Her house, she said, is "real dysfunctional, like all great families."

Joesler homes don't meet contemporary standards. The kitchens and closets are small. The roofs and walls lack insulation. That didn't matter to the Joesler-Murphey clientele, who left their winter homes when summer came.

Baldwin said she isn't certain that the architect's name alone adds to the value of the homes, but there is always interest in them and Joeslers do seem to sell for a premium price.

She attributes much of that to location in the old Foothills, and to the way in which Joesler and the Murpheys sited the homes for maximum desert, mountain and city views.

She, too, is puzzled when other agents market homes as "Joesleresque."

"I've seen that, but I don't understand it," she said.

The collaboration between the UA Library and the College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture that established the Joesler digital collection was done partly from self-defense.

Jeffery, director of the college's Drachman Institute, is also its de facto archivist and historian. Showing the papers of the Joesler-Murphey archive, housed off campus, had become a burden.

It was far and away the most popular archive, with demand coming mostly from owners of Joesler homes or the real estate agents selling them, he said.

There is a mystique around Joesler that probably exceeds his importance as an architect, Jeffery said. It reached its peak in 1979 when several of Joesler's homes were razed to make room for the widening of North Campbell Avenue.

One home became a cause célèbre. It was spared the wrecking ball and loaded on a trailer for a painstaking, week-long move to the Foothills. It collapsed 50 yards from its destination near East River Road and North Alvernon Way.


The exhibit, featuring photographs of Josias Joesler's buildings, architectural drawings and concept plans, is open until Aug. 21 in the gallery at Special Collections, 1510 E. University Blvd.

For hours and more info, go online to: speccoll.library.

Contact reporter Tom Beal at or 573-4158.

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