Scottsdale’s ‘spa-awesome’ reputation started 150 years ago
By Joan Fudala
Photos courtesy of Scottsdale Historical Society
Aaahhh … a spa. Nothing says relaxation and renewal like a few hours at one of Scottsdale’s many spas or health clubs. Residents and visitors alike enjoy the healthful and restorative benefits of massage, facials, special exercise and nutrition sessions and more. They flock by the hundreds to our indoor and outdoor fitness centers and neighborhood parks. But is our attraction to spas, salons and gyms a recent phenomenon, or do we have a history of being a center of well-being?
Here are some tidbits of Scottsdale’s early spa and healthy living history:
Many of the earliest settlers in the area we now know as Scottsdale came here for the restorative powers of the warm, dry climate. Suffering from “the white plague” (as tuberculosis was known), other lung ailments or arthritis, doctors advised patients to come to the central Arizona Territory for relief of their symptoms. Scottsdale’s first tourist camps doubled as health camps, and a reputation was born for Scottsdale as a center for restoring one’s health.
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Chaplain/Major Winfield Scott and his wife, Helen, who homesteaded Scottsdale in 1888, recognized the healthful opportunities of Scottsdale, and let “friends and friends of friends” winter in tent-cabins on their property to recuperate and rejuvenate. Many of their guests became lifelong residents.
One of the most popular health camps/tourism camps was Graves Guest Ranch, on the northwest corner of Scottsdale and Indian School roads, which operated circa 1910 through the 1950s. Guests benefited not only from the climate, but also from meals of fresh, locally grown fruit, citrus, vegetables, dairy, poultry and beef, which were hard to get during Eastern winters. Health seekers also participated in mild to active outdoor and desert adventures such as riding horses, playing croquet, hikes and picnics.
Ingleside Inn, Scottsdale’s first “luxury” resort (opened in 1909 and closed circa 1940, near where the Arizona Country Club is today between Indian School and Thomas roads), did not take in sick people, but advertised an ideal/healthy winter climate and the inn’s delicious menu of local produce. Its primary attraction was the ability to enjoy the outdoors—golf on a nine-hole desert course, horseback riding, picnics catered at Echo Canyon on Camelback Mountain—during the winter months, when guests would normally be snowbound and possibly sick or experiencing cold-weather aches and pains “Back East.”
Early Scottsdalians also consulted with their neighbors, the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, about natural remedies, treatments and practices that encouraged healthy living. Desert plants and herbs, such as aloe and jojoba, were recognized as beneficial for treatments. Today, many spa treatments trace their origins to Native American culture.
The first luxury spa to open in the Scottsdale area was Elizabeth Arden’s Maine Chance, located at the southeastern base of Camelback Mountain, and modeled after her rural farm spa in central Maine. Opened circa 1946 in a former estate, Maine Chance was a hidden hideaway for rich and famous women who came to be pampered, lose weight, get fit, and enjoy the dry desert climate. It was only open during the winter season. During a March 1946 trip to Phoenix to visit her daughter, former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt stopped by Maine Chance for a tour, then wrote about it in her nationally syndicated newspaper column, “My Day.”
One of Maine Chance’s most famous guests during the 1950s and 1960s was another first lady, Mamie Eisenhower, who loved to come to Scottsdale every year for pampering and healthful treatments. She often extended her stay in order to be honorary chair or special guest at local charity events. At least once, her husband accompanied her so that he could play golf while she spa’d.
According to the March 10, 1958, edition of Time magazine, “Tourists or newsmen who wandered close to Beautycoon Elizabeth Arden’s Arizona Maine Chance health-and-beauty farm last week were brusquely shooed away by grim-faced guards who sprang from behind cactus clumps. A total of 21 armed men—six Secret Service agents, six members of the Arizona highway patrol and nine Maricopa County sheriff’s deputies—guarded the place around the clock, seven men to each eight-hour shift. Behind the security curtain rested the most prestigious guest ever to adorn Arizona Maine Chance: the First Lady of the U.S.”
Maine Chance was known for its ultra pampering and special treatments—state-of-the-art spa of the day: a hot paraffin wax treatment called the Ardena Bath, 900-calorie-a-day spa cuisine, machines designed to reduce hip and thigh fat, scalp and foot massages and exercise classes throughout the day. Ladies were encouraged not to leave the property during the week so they wouldn’t be tempted to indulge in unhealthful eating or drinking.
Although their identities were closely guarded, celebrity columns listed Rosalind Russell, Ava Gardner, Mrs. John Foster Dulles, Mrs. Van Johnson, Clare Booth Luce, singer Martha Lipton and others as guests of Maine Chance. Local women also checked in for an annual week of spa treatments and camaraderie, including Katherine “Kax” Herberger and Peggy Goldwater.
Maine Chance closed in the early 1990s to make way for an expansion of The Phoenician resort.
Pharmacist and physical therapist Shirley Brown opened the Western Health Salon on Brown Avenue circa 1950. His weekly ads in the Scottsdale Progress said the salon offered Swedish massage, spot reducing (12 treatments for $24), colonics, steam bath, belt machine, rowing machine, a Sinusoidal Percussomotor and corrective foot massage.
Accustomed to men’s clubs on the East Coast and in the Midwest, a group of local businessmen established the Pima Athletic Club in January 1963. A feature in the June 13, 1964, Scottsdale Progress explained, “Growing old doesn’t necessarily mean becoming flabby and out of shape, as evidence by some 110 Scottsdale men who are active members of the Pima Athletic Club, 28 Pima Plaza.” In addition to workouts, saunas and massages, members could play cards and socialize in the club room or bar. After it closed, architect Joe Wong opened the property in 1967 as the long-running Empress Garden restaurant.
Countess Elena operated a salon, spa and charm school in downtown Scottsdale in the mid-1960s. She was a judge of the Miss Universe contest.
Realizing that youth and residents of modest means would also like to pursue fitness regimens, members of the 1964 Scottsdale Town Enrichment Program encouraged the city to establish a system of neighborhood and city parks. The new first park to open was El Dorado Park in 1967; it included a swimming pool and recreation center.
In 1974, the city of Scottsdale opened Club SAR (Social, Athletic, Recreational) to provide an outlet for young people to learn responsibility through boxing. On opening night, 1,200 attended an exhibition boxing match. In 1984, the city moved Club SAR to facilities at Indian School Park and reopened it as a full-fledged fitness center.
Another bit of spa history has a Scottsdale area tie: Ken Jacuzzi, inspiration for the invention of the Jacuzzi whirlpool bath by his father and uncle, has lived in the Scottsdale area for many years. Read about his inspiring life, and how he became a business leader and activist for people with disabilities, in his 2005 book, Jacuzzi: A Father’s Invention to Ease a Son’s Pain, by Ken Jacuzzi and Diane Holloway.
As Scottsdale’s luxury resort boom began in the 1970s and continued through the 2000s, having a spa was as important as having beds in rooms. Today, there are nearly 30 resort spas in the Scottsdale area, complemented by a host of day spas, fitness centers, gyms, city recreation centers, fitness classes and innumerable salons. Even area hospitals have spas. Health and beauty have become so important to Scottsdale’s image as a resort and health center, we have massage and beauty schools within our boundaries.
So as the kids head back to school and you have some free time, or if you’re in need of some relief from the heat at a cool spa or salon, know that you will be following a tradition in Scottsdale that dates back at least 120 years by going to a local spa.
Joan Fudala is a Scottsdale-based community historian and author. Contact: email@example.com.