By Weldon B. Johnson
The Republic | azcentral.com
It was her wedding day, and the San Marcos Hotel was the perfect place for Dorothy Woods? reception.
Woods was set to marry Phillip Ruoff on April 25, 1959, at St. Mary?s Church, about a block from the home where she grew up on Washington Street near downtown Chandler. The reception was to be at the nearby San Marcos, the town?s longtime crown jewel, a place she describes as magical.
Her special day was going to be even more special because she would change out of her wedding dress into her reception clothes in the hotel bungalow that once was the residence of Dr. A.J. Chandler, founder and namesake of her hometown.
Hotel owner John Quarty, a family friend, offered what he believed would be the icing on the cake for the 22-year-old bride: transporting Woods from her home to the church and later to the hotel in the hotel?s limousine. It was a 1933 Cadillac with a 16-cylinder engine and an open compartment up front for the chauffeur.
The car, which once belonged to Hollywood legend Joan Crawford, a former San Marcos guest, was a link to the resort?s star-studded history.
An awe-inspiring place
Splendor and mystique marked the early days of the San Marcos: an opulent playground, a hideaway for the rich and famous, a place that the common clay of an emerging Chandler, known for farming and ranching, would view from outside in an attempt to sneak a peek at those who lived lives that they could only dream about.
The San Marcos has been part of special occasions for 100 years. When it opened on Nov. 22, 1913, the hotel was Arizona?s first true luxury resort, predating the more well-known Biltmore by 16 years, and it featured the first grass golf course in the state.
Guests included Hollywood notables such as Crawford, Errol Flynn, Clark Gable and Jimmy Stewart. President Herbert Hoover spent a night there after he was out of office.
When the A-list guests began to favor other Valley resorts in the 1950s, the San Marcos became an attainable special destination for southeast Valley residents who once could only imagine attending functions on the property. The hotel has been the setting for countless weddings, proms and balls.
It has seen its share of hard times, too. It was closed for more than seven years after Quarty?s death in 1979, but it persevered even as ownership changed hands several times.
And now at 100, the hotel?s future seems as bright as ever. A La Jolla, Calif.-based investment firm purchased the property last year and has pumped an estimated $5 million into renovations, timed for the San Marcos centennial celebration that began in November.
The early years
A.J. Chandler came to Arizona from Detroit to be the first veterinary surgeon in the territory. However, he became fascinated with irrigation technology, and soon his ambitions grew well beyond caring for animals. He began acquiring land. According to documents in the Chandler Museum archives, he purchased his first 80 acres in 1891. By 1900, he had an 18,000-acre ranch that he would subdivide and sell off to found the town.
Chandler opened the townsite office on May 17, 1912, and 300 investors spent $50,000 on land that first day. At that time, the town consisted of three buildings: the office, a dining hall and a grocery store. But there was also a billboard advertising the future site of an elegant hotel.
The San Marcos was named for Fray Marcos de Niza, the first European settler in the Valley in the 1500s. It was designed by Los Angeles architect Arthur Burnett Benton in the Mission Revival style that A.J. Chandler had grown fond of during his time in Southern California.
Chandler?s vision was to build a ?Jewel in the Desert,? a resort where winter visitors could rent a room or a bungalow, a multi-room dwelling that offered more space and privacy than a hotel room. They could take advantage of Arizona?s winter climate for activities like horseback riding and, of course, golf.
The San Marcos golf course initially had oiled-sand greens. It was converted to a Scottish links-style golf course with grass within two years.
For those who weren?t interested in golf, there were other amenities that were impressive for the era.
The building featured distinctive arched windows, fitting with the Mission Revival theme. Upon entering the hotel lobby, visitors would see a grand staircase leading to the second floor. Early advertising for the hotel boasted that each room had electric lights and a telephone. All guest rooms also opened onto a patio or balcony, a rarity at the time.
On top of the three-story building was a Japanese-style teahouse that gave guests stunning views of the surrounding desert and mountains in the distance.
Ruoff recalls being fascinated by the hotel as a child. Walking to and from the movie theaters that her family owned in downtown Chandler, she would stroll past the hotel, where she often would pause to enjoy the lavish floral arrangements or the fragrant orange trees that lined the walkway between the guest bungalows leading to the golf course.
?It was like a magical place,? Ruoff said. ?You would never imagine you would ever stay there or that you would ever have any kind of an event there.?
The people of Chandler found the guests of the hotel fascinating.
While some celebrities came and went anonymously, that wasn?t always the case. The town newspaper printed lists of who had stayed there, including dancer/actor Fred Astaire, actress Gloria Swanson, former heavyweight champ Gene Tunney, painter Fritz Werner and the first Major League Baseball commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis. Frank Lloyd Wright stayed there. At one time, A.J. Chandler tried to get the world-famous architect to do a redesign of the hotel. John D. Rockefeller Jr. stayed there in 1931.
During the tourist season ? the hotel would close during the summer months in the early years ? Ruoff said a favorite pastime was watching guests ?promenading? from the hotel to downtown restaurants for dinner.
This was in the early 1940s when people still dressed for dinner.
?You?d see ladies in long gowns and fur capes. Gentlemen were dressed up in evening attire,? Ruoff said. ?They would take their evening walk all the way down to the historic square. For all of us, it was like, ?Wow.? We were not used to people dressing like that, in the middle of the week, to go and have dinner. That wasn?t the norm here.?
The hotel lobby was a favorite spot for people-watching, and it was there that she had her first celebrity encounter. She?d been sent to the hotel to find her father, who was having a drink at the bar.
?This was probably around 1947 or ?48,? she said. ?I just went into the bar to get my father and tapped my dad on the shoulder and said, ?We need you over on the Parkway (theater).? He said, ?OK, fine. Do you recognize this gentleman next to me here that I?m talking to?? I said, ?Oh, yeah. I do.? It was Errol Flynn and his wife.?
Ruoff also said she got an autograph from Clark Gable after the rumor spread through town that he was at the San Marcos playing golf.
The middle years
The Chandler Improvement Co. was the original owner of the hotel. That group spun off the San Marcos Hotel Co. for the purpose of managing the property. Both were headed by A.J. Chandler. He lost control of the property in 1936 during the Great Depression. He continued to live at the San Marcos, however, occupying Bungalow No. 1 until his death in 1950.
In 1943, the second owner of the hotel, banker E.W. Edwards, hired Quarty as general manager. He would become the ?face? of the hotel, and many people around town believed that he owned the place. He finally did assume ownership in 1961.
?He was a real innkeeper when it came to hospitality and putting himself out there,? Ruoff said. ?He had a little flamboyance in the way he dressed. Then he met the beautiful Angele and they married. She was a stunning blonde and was a really good complement to him. She had that outgoing nature. She was there at different events and always greeted people in the lobby.?
As the San Marcos was surpassed in luxury cachet by newer Valley resorts, the focus began to shift from being a hideaway for the rich and famous to becoming a center for special events in the region.
Whether it was a wedding or anniversary or a special birthday, southeast Valley residents loved to celebrate at the famed San Marcos.
The hotel was undergoing other transitions, as well. Quarty replaced some of the bungalows with smaller casitas.
After Quarty died in 1979, however, the resort truly began to change ? for the worse.
The hotel was sold to a Canadian company that had difficulty securing financing for planned renovations. Then, the unthinkable: Chandler?s downtown landmark was closed and boarded up. It would remain that way for seven years.
Ruoff and her husband had moved to Denver shortly after they were married and remained there until 1964. They returned to the Valley, in Phoenix. In 1993, they moved back to Chandler to care for her ailing mother. They still live in the house on Washington Street where she grew up.
Ruoff was among those who led successful efforts to have the home?s Silk Stocking neighborhood placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Meanwhile, the deterioration of the shuttered San Marcos was hard to miss, and it hurt those with a deep history in Chandler, like Ruoff.
?I can remember coming to visit Mom on many occasions and going downtown,? Ruoff said. ?It was devastating to see the condition. In the early 1980s when it was just sitting there, the trees all died. The bungalows deteriorated. There was no maintenance on that property for many, many years. It was really devastating.?
The present and future
The hotel has changed hands several more times since 1979. It reopened after extensive renovation in 1987 as a Sheraton-branded property and in 2006 became part of the Crowne Plaza chain.
The hotel?s future once again was thrown into doubt in 2010 when it was taken over by a court-appointed receiver after the owners, San Marcos Capital Partners, defaulted on a $23.9 million loan. That group would file for bankruptcy in 2011, and the resort was foreclosed on and taken over by Guaranty Bank and Trust.
For a brief time in 2012, there was speculation that the property no longer would be a hotel at all but become part of Ottawa University.
That speculation ended last January. La Jolla, Calif.-based Interwest Capital Corp. completed a purchase of the San Marcos for $11 million with the intention of restoring it to its former glory in time for its 100th anniversary. The owners are working to upgrade it to current standards of luxury and technology while maintaining the building?s historic character. It has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1982.
Among the most noticeable changes are the addition of an indoor/outdoor lobby bar, opening the courtyard along San Marcos Place by replacing the block wall with a decorative fence, revamping the main restaurant and updating the lobby and guest rooms.
It will remain a Crowne Plaza brand.
?It?s been a fun adventure for us,? said Dina Lomagno, regional vice president of sales and marketing for GF Management, which manages the hotel. ?The ownership group could not be more supportive about making sure they?re doing what?s right by the hotel and the community.
?It?s all about us coming back in and rebuilding the traditions and relationships that have kind of fallen to the side a little bit throughout the years.?
Ruoff is encouraged by what she has seen. The hotel has been such a big part of her life that she is hoping to see it rise again.
?I?m real happy to see what they?ve done so far,? Ruoff said. ?I?m very encouraged. As a native of Chandler, I?m happy to see it getting some of its life back.?
San Marcos is home
As for that ride in Joan Crawford?s car she was offered on her wedding day, Ruoff finally had the chance, for at least that one special day, to live the life of the stars that she?d watched for much of her life as they visited the San Marcos.
And she declined.
?He (Quarty) approached my father and said, ?Why don?t I send the limo to the house and she can get in the limo and ride around the corner to the church?? ? said Ruoff, now 77. ?I said, ?I?m not getting in that huge thing and just riding around the corner.? This was a small enough town then ? there were about 5,000 people ? that everybody would have known. I would have loved to hike up my skirts and walk across the alley.?
Ruoff said she wasn?t one to make that much of a fuss about herself.
She did, however, dress for her reception in A.J. Chandler?s Bungalow No. 1.