Justice for Sandra Day O'Connor's House

An Adobe Finds a New Home and Purpose

Photos by Center for the Future of Arizona

Brick by brick, shingle by shingle, the family home of Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor arrived this past February at a two-acre plot on the western end of Papago Park in the heart of Tempe, Ariz. The relocation—from Denton Lane in Paradise Valley to a tract of unspoiled desert—was the work of a grassroots group of civic-minded citizens who enthusiastically endorsed Justice O'Connor's wish to re-purpose the house as a "Camp David" of the Southwest. Her vision, born from past experiences, is to bring together world leaders who can offer insight and methodology on specific issues. "The years I was in the Senate we would host gatherings at the house for senators," O'Connor told the Arizona Republic. "We would have senators from both sides of the aisle. And the state department would often send young leaders from around the world …. We'd talk about each other's countries and how [it ] would be a better place if we knew more about each other."

O'Connor House logoNow located on the Carl Hayden Campus of Sustainability, a section of Papago Park established in 2001 by the Rio Salado Foundation, the house shares a "green" theme with its neighbors: the Xeriscape Garden of the Tempe Women's Club; Evelyn Hallman Park; the Eisendrath Center for Water Conservation (a 1930 Pueblo Revival structure by architect Robert Evans), and 13 acres of Sonoran Desert habitat. 

The 1,700-square-foot O'Connor ranch house, built in the 1950s, epitomizes the environmentally respectful tradition of the Southwest, with its eco-friendly adobe blocks made from the soil of the nearby Salt River. Molded and baked in the sun, the mud bricks harden into a durable building material excellent for insulation, especially when, as in the O'Connor House, additional soil was applied as mortar between the bricks. During the 1957 construction, O'Connor and her husband helped smooth the mud onto the exterior walls, then spray-painted the outside with skim milk, whose protein prevents dust motes from flaking off.   

The three-bedroom residence will be restored to its original design under the direction of project manager Janie Ellis, hired for her expertise in moving adobe houses, and not so coincidentally, the daughter of the original adobe brick supplier, George Ellis. This echo from the past adds to the house's history and continuity. "The house is a jewel," Ellis says, "and everyone involved is excited. Justice O'Connor comes a few times a month to see the progress."

The "deconstruction" process began a year ago, and the restoration will be completed this summer. The cost of rebuilding, including electrical and mechanical renovations required by city codes, will top out at approximately $2 million in cash and in-kind donations from private individuals, public institutions, and corporations. Elva Coor, who co-directs the fundraising, says more financial support is necessary to turn the the O'Connor House into a venue for solving state and national issues through compromise and consensus. Its tagline: "where civil talk leads to civic action," Coor says. "It's important for people to realize that even the most modest of places can host and help create historically significant events," Coor told an Arizona legal publication.

There is precedent for this incarnation. In the early 1970s, when O'Connor served in the Arizona legislature as Senate majority leader, her home was the forum for many heated discussions and amicable resolutions. "I remember sessions in the living room area," O'Connor recalled to a reporter, "talking about provisions for Arizona that would keep it out debt but (encourage) progress." This fall, the house again will serve as a forum to explore problems in such areas as healthcare, women's justice, civic education, and the preservation of the Western landscape and its fragile resources.

According to Jim Garrison, executive director of the Arizona State Office of Historic Preservation, the house's structural design borrows from the styles of nationally renowned architects Frank Lloyd Wright and Cliff May (the "father" of the California ranch house). Garrison is currently reviewing the house's eligibility criteria for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places, a process that can take up to a year and involves assessing the integrity of the reconstruction and O'Connor's reinvention of the house as a mediation center rather than a museum memorializing her life. "She wants the house to have a purpose," Garrison says.


The new owner of the O'Connor House wanted to replace it with a bigger house and waited until it was moved.

Credit: City of Tempe

During the meticulous reconstruction, Ellis personally supervised the removal of nearly 6,000 adobe blocks that were then numbered for the rebuilding process. About 600 new bricks (locally manufactured and donated by Old Pueblo Adobe) with steel inserts were on hand to replace bricks broken in the move. Next, the roof was disassembled and trucked over to Papago Park in 12 trips; fire-retardant wooden shingles were substituted for damaged ones. Deconstructing the roof proved a challenge because one large beam appeared to extend the length of the house. "It turned out to be really two beams nailed together," Ellis says, "but it was still a tight fit (maneuvering it)." Another problem was rock on the site. "It's harder to re-construct there," Ellis says. "It would have been easier to build new!"  

In any case, architect D.K. Taylor's green philosophy was preserved—for example, the north-south alignment is retained. Also, since the west wall takes the brunt of the sun, floor-to-ceiling windows are located on the east; large overhangs shade all four exterior walls.  

The natural environment remains integral. Overflow from a nearby water treatment plant feeds an adjacent riparian area called the Green Line Overlook, home to hundreds of cottonwoods, African sumacs, California fan palms and pyracantha as well as varied wildlife.

"The house blends into the trees," Coor says, "and it is simple and appropriate to the environment—not a showcase."

The future Sandra Day O'Connor Center for Civic Discourse in Tempe's Papago Park

Credit: City of Tempe

When several cottonwood trees had to be uprooted to cut a path from the house to the nearby Arizona Historical Museum, the vegetation was recycled at the Phoenix Zoo as elephant food. Also, workers, whenever possible, restored disturbed areas to their original state.—for instance, construction workers cemented over a 60-foot-long water main and covered that with the removed topsoil.

While the original site took advantage of the picturesque Praying Monk formation on Camelback Mountain, the new location opens up to the majestic Four Peaks in the McDowell Mountains. In Justice O'Connor's world, man and nature should strive for harmony. It is her vision, as set forth in a mission statement, that the O'Connor House flourish as a "pragmatic tool in public affairs" that provides "best practices." She hopes the O'Connor House will help people evolve beyond the polarizing rhetoric and lead them to real outcomes. Justice O'Connor believes her former home conveys a commonsense credo. As she told the Arizona Republic, "It's a humble house, but it's part of the earth." 

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Submitted by Nat at: December 1, 2009
Wow, everybody that wrote those comments seem so smart! Man I wish I was smart because I don't understand math! And I'm in the Advanced Class....oh well I know my comment was unnessesary but I wanted to post it -sorry

Submitted by Hassayampa at: April 9, 2009
It will be interesting to see if a case can be made for National Register eligibility. With all of the eligible properties in the queue, I hope the SHPO doesn't dwell on this context-challenged reconstruction too long.

Submitted by ignatzs at: April 8, 2009
Wow - I'm a die-hard believer in preservation, but just because a house is connected with soemone famous - especially in the current era of overnight fame - does not make it a preservation priority. I live in a real adobe in New Mexico and O'Connor's house - a decidedly blase example of southwestern architecture - is replicated multi-fold throughout Albuquerque, Las Cruces, etc - not to mention AZ. Let's devote preservation resources to really important historic endangered architecture that disappears everyday - not just the modern day equivalent of the "George Washington slept here " fly by night fame. Way too much money was spent to actually take apart and number adobe bricks. They're made of mud that was designed to be a uniform size -nothing special in terms of craftsmanship - you can use new ones without compromising the integrity of the original structure. -this is not a 1700's hand hewn wood structure where fit of the the individual time time-shrunk beams and hand crafted joints are cucial to the integrity of the structure. By removing it from its orginal setting there has been more damage done than anything else.

Submitted by Chris at: April 6, 2009
Since the habitation has been moved is it eligible for the register? I was under the impression that a relocated buildings, having lost their context, were thus rendered ineligible.