By Tom Pickrell
Porter and Andy Womack were prominent residential and commercial builders for more than 40 years in Phoenix before and after World War II. The similarities end there, however, as the brothers were very different men.
Porter worked to achieve higher social standing. He created P.W. Womack Construction Co, a powerhouse that built more than 3,000 homes and many commercial, education, and military buildings across the Southwest. Andy, an entertainer at heart, sold homes to pay for his love of rodeo. He was the first Phoenix builder to undertake a mass home construction project using an assembly line method.
In their own way, each contributed significantly to the history and culture of Phoenix. Their lives are colorful, rags-to-riches stories with an “only in America” ring to them.
Born in Tennessee, Porter and Andy were two of four young brothers who moved with their parents to Phoenix in 1908. The boys had a hardscrabble childhood. Poor health prevented their father from working, and their mother labored as a domestic.
Porter was not the oldest brother, but he was the tallest and most dependable, and he became the mainstay of the Womack family. Porter skipped most of high school and became a carpenter, as did brothers Hagan and Richard. Andy became a mason and would be continually reminded by his brothers that laying bricks was less prestigious than pounding nails.
Womack Brothers Construction, an informal partnership led by Porter, built its first home in 1927 and completed eight more by 1930. These homes remain in the beautiful Encanto-Palmcroft and Willo neighborhoods of Phoenix. The Womack brothers’ early success was remarkable because few Phoenicians could afford a custom home, and Porter was only 24 years old, and Andy and Rich were still teenagers.
Building a quality home every time is the key to every new home-builder's success. But the Womack brothers also had a little help along the way. Whenever a house or even a residential lot was purchased, The Arizona Republic covered it in a small “space filler” article. Everyone read the newspaper, so the “Womack” name became associated with home construction.
The Great Depression slowed home construction to a trickle. At its lowest point, 1933, the City issued only 11 permits for new homes. Congress enacted New Deal programs in 1934 to revive the construction industry. The Federal Housing Authority created the government-insured, fixed-rate, long-term home mortgage, and the Public Works Administration began distributing millions of dollars to state and local governments for construction of school, hospital and other public buildings.
Porter formed P.W. Womack Construction Co. (PWC) and bid on public projects. His success enabled the company to develop its commercial and government business in the years ahead.
PWC’s first public contract, the Phoenix Subsistence Homesteads, was designed to enable low-income families to rent and eventually purchase a home with enough land to grow their own food. It nearly slipped through Porter's fingers when he inadvertently tossed the first award letter into the trash. PWC built 25 small Spanish Mission-style homes, each on three-quarters of an acre near Thomas Road and 28th Street. The houses were made of adobe stucco with a roof of slab stone quarried from the southside of Camelback Mountain.
More complex projects followed. PWC’s first education building was the women’s dormitory at Northern Arizona University. In 1938, PWC completed three education buildings still in use today: Phoenix’s North High School’s science building, Phoenix College’s Bulpitt Auditorium and administrative wings, and University of Arizona’s Gila dormitory.
Phoenix College’s Bulpitt Auditorium
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This article originally appeared in the bimonthly Arizona Contractor & Community magazine, Sept/Oct 2020 issue, Vol. 9, No. 5.