Editors’ note: Happy Women’s History Month! We’re excited to celebrate with you by continuing our series on the life of Margaret Sanger.
If you’ve lived in Tucson, it’s likely that you’ve passed by one of Margaret Sanger’s erstwhile residences. In the 1930s she lived in Tucson’s Foothills and by the next decade she lived on Elm Street, close to the Arizona Inn and the university. About 10 years later, she helped to design a new house in the Catalina Vista neighborhood.
In one of Sanger’s autobiographies, she tells of the pull Tucson exerted on her:
“In the winter, remembering Arizona from the time I had been there with Stuart, I went out again in response to the summons of the desert. My husband and I found a house near Tucson of adobe, trimmed in blue.”
This adobe house was in the Foothills of Tucson, purchased in April 1933. Sanger and her husband, J. Noah, had a famously contentious relationship and maintained separate apartments within their home; Sanger’s was on the ground floor in the front area of the house.
Though enchanted by the desert’s beauty, Sanger and her family also pinned their hopes on the climate’s supposed restorative powers. Sanger’s son Stuart had already moved to Tucson, and was hopeful that the climate would help to heal an enduring ear infection. Sanger’s husband hoped it would alleviate his arthritis (and was also drawn by Arizona’s lack of income tax at the time). For her part, Sanger sought relief from her bronchitis, and also believed the climate would put her at a decreased risk for tuberculosis.
Sometime in the early 1940s, due to gasoline rations, Sanger and her husband decided to move away from the Foothills to a more centrally located house, choosing a location a few doors down from Arizona Inn on Elm Street. They spent summers in New York, but Sanger declined her son Grant’s offer to live with them back East permanently. Instead she stayed in Tucson and talked to Grant on the phone every Sunday night.
The house on Elm Street was J. Noah’s last residence – after he passed away, Sanger lived there alone. Eventually, she decided to sell the house – and along with it, her New York apartment, rendering her a full-time Tucson resident. Before J. Noah died, he traded some land he owned that was adjacent to the Arizona Inn for a large lot that Arizona Inn owned on Sierra Vista Drive just a few blocks away. Sanger’s son Stuart built a house on some of the land, and Sanger had the rest. She commissioned the construction of a new house, which brought her even closer to Stuart; they became next-door neighbors.
She packed up her things to prepare to move to her new house. She had been very involved in its conception, even taking a correspondence course in interior design, which she completed in early 1949. She also tried to secure Frank Lloyd Wright as her architect, but he rejected the job, claiming that he couldn’t work with a 110-foot-by-150-foot lot, and that “anything built on less than forty acres is a pig-sty.” (She settled on a local architect, Arthur T. Brown.)
Sanger wanted her new house to provide a great setting for her parties, an innovative structure that stood in contrast to the typical styles popular in the Southwest. It was fan-shaped with windows that reached from the floors to the ceiling, providing panoramic views of the Santa Catalina Mountains to the north. Sliding-glass doors led to three separate gardens: a Japanese garden, a desert garden, and one with a fountain with multicolored lights. The fountain connected to an underground pool in the living room.
Sanger even issued a press release to announce plans for her house and the furniture that would decorate it, which attracted a few lookie-loos who would ogle the construction from the street. She seemed to love the attention – she had just made some controversial comments (“Women should declare a moratorium on babies for ten years; let none get born in any country until hunger is conquered”) that were drawing international derision, and her domestic activities in Tucson were a welcome diversion.
Her house on Sierra Vista Drive was used by many local organizations as sites for parties and meetings, including the Women’s Republican Club, the Medical Center, the Tucson Arts Festival, and the local Planned Parenthood. It was also the hub of Sanger’s family life, as it put her in daily contact with her son and his children, who lived next door. Her granddaughters would walk across the adjoining lawn in their yards every morning to have a second breakfast with their grandmother.
If walls could talk, surely the still-standing structures would have much to say about Sanger’s colorful life.
To read more about the life of Margaret Sanger, check out these related blog posts:
Happy Birthday to Margaret Sanger, Founder of Planned Parenthood
Margaret Sanger in Tucson: The Golden Years
Margaret Sanger in Tucson: Reclaiming the Spotlight
Margaret Sanger in Tucson: Still Going Headstrong