Albert Chase McArthur’s Arizona Biltmore: the Jewel of the Desert
By James Logan Abell, FAIA
Albert Chase McArthur, a 44-year-old Chicago architect, arrived in Phoenix in 1925 to join his two younger brothers, Charles and Warren Jr. McArthur. The brothers had been city residents for more than a decade and were successful businessmen having launched a Dodge dealership in 1914 and the city’s first radio station, KFAD 930 AM, in 1922, which became KTAR in 1929. Yet, Albert’s contribution also shines brightly, having designed one of the Salt River Valley’s most loved and enduring landmarks: the Arizona Biltmore Hotel.
The Arizona Biltmore Hotel oasis alone in the Sonoran Desert, 1929.
Moreover, his architectural piece de résistance in the Valley would through, rumor, marketing ploys, and outright lies often be credited to his old employer, a man he would hire for a small piece of consulting on this hotel, none other than Frank Lloyd Wright. The fact that Wright was in personal, legal, and career difficulties adds much to this drama. And Wright’s betrayal of the McArthur family’s generosity toward him adds to the irony in the birth of this landmark resort.
Albert Chase McArthur possessed good looks and quiet charisma. He graduated from Chicago’s Armour Institute of Technology in 1899 and went on to study architecture, mathematics, and music at Harvard in 1905. He enjoyed a distinguished career working for two years for Frank Lloyd Wright in Oak Park, Illinois, from 1907-1909. In 1912, McArthur passed his architectural licensing exam in Illinois at age 31, still a common age of licensure today for such a demanding profession. He subsequently had a successful career with his Chicago partner, architect George S. Coffin, designing large industrial buildings.
McArthur moved to Phoenix in 1925 fresh from touring Europe and his study of the architecture of France and Germany with his Viennese-born wife, Irna, and their two children. They settled in on the edge of the city just north of Thomas Road and Seventh Street in the Phoenix Country Club. Albert’s brother, Charles, had developed a golf course there around 1920 with Frank Lloyd Wright, Jr., the son of Frank Lloyd Wright. He was known as a landscape architect in Los Angeles and went by the name, Lloyd Wright. He later helped his father develop the large, thin concrete block used to build four experimental homes in the Los Angeles area, starting in 1923.
Albert McArthur was a born inventor like his father and his brothers and was very civic-minded. He soon applied for a license to practice architecture and held one of the earliest Arizona license numbers. He rented offices on the second floor of the new “Sullivanesque Style” Luhr’s Building designed in 1924 by El Paso’s Trost and Trost Architects.
The three brothers planned a tourist hotel in Tucson in April, 1925 and had plans for other Arizona locations, including one near the San Francisco Peaks in northern Arizona, and a development near Casa Grande named “La Palma.” The latter site already had 500 palm trees planted for the proposed extravagant resort hotel, and there were preparations afoot for an adjacent housing development and railroad stop. Albert received some telegrams in his office in Chicago from Frank Lloyd Wright, who was in the midst of those “textile block” homes in Los Angeles. It seemed that Wright knew of the McArthur family’s ambitions in Arizona, and thought keeping in touch with Albert might be a good idea.
By 1926, McArthur had seen his ultra-modern white stucco design for the Morgan Residence built on North Central, way outside of town. He also had a 10-story Art Deco design for a theater and office building for downtown Phoenix on the drawing boards. The Phoenix main line of the Southern Pacific Railroad was completed that year, and intercontinental rail travel instituted in 1927.
The 1926 D.B. Morgan residence was perhaps the city’s first “International Style” building and features Viennese influenced blue tiles.
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This article originally appeared in the bimonthly Arizona Contractor & Community magazine, Sept/Oct 2020 issue, Vol. 9, No. 5.