Guest Commentary

Tucson's real estate market enters the big leagues, as a $17.5 million house signifies

Hearst had his San Simeon. Arthur had Camelot, and someone in Tucson has Campbell Cliffs, a 24-room, 31,000-square-foot house currently on sale for $17.5 million. This house would go relatively unnoticed in Tucson, were it not for the fact that it is the most expensive house ever put on the market in Southern Arizona. The property carries an exorbitant price tag, not because it resembles the Neverland Ranch or Hammertime, but due to the uniqueness of its setting and the fame of its architect, Les Wallach.

Wallach is well known for his design of the restaurant and special events complex at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. He has participated in numerous public and private projects throughout Arizona and the western states, but Campbell Cliffs remains one of his most selective attempts at residential design.

Wallach founded Line and Space in 1978, "to facilitate the designing and building of innovative and ecologically sound architectural projects," an idea that brings to mind Frank Lloyd Wright's own Arizona home, Taliesin West. But Campbell Cliffs differs from Taliesin, because it is one long, self-contained residence nestled in the Catalina mountains. Campbell Cliffs' price tag also reflects the house's many ostentatious 21st-century accoutrements. From a two-story, state-of-the-art gymnasium to a home theater, servants' quarters and darkroom, this home is something of a nod to technological modernity, while fiercely trying to preserve our desert heritage.

The main question is, "Why Tucson?" Unlike Long Island, Martha's Vineyard or Beverly Hills, Tucson has not been known as a destination for the ultra-rich or those who require super-dwellings. But Tucson is actually home to much more money then we realize, including the homes of Paul Allen and the former ranch of Paul McCartney, as well as many other big shots not named Paul. So, if Campbell Cliffs isn't necessarily out of place, then one must wonder why it is for sale. Usually, when someone hires a well-known architect like Mr. Wallach to design a unique home, they intend to live in it, just as Edgar J. Kaufmann and family did in Falling Water, another house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright that incorporates the environment into its design. But Campbell Cliffs was finished in the fall of 2003 and has been on the market since last March. Although currently inhabited by the owners, it is clear that they had no intention of a long-term stay.

It may take a while for a buyer to come along. Few lenders are willing to give a mortgage for such a large sum: "Jumbo" loans often have a $2.5 million cap.

Comparable sales--the first thing an appraiser looks at--can't be found in Tucson, or anywhere else in Southern Arizona, for that matter.

Nevertheless, when Campbell Cliffs is sold, it will be a landmark in Tucson history, thanks to the sheer size of both the property and the price. This may well be seen as a turning point in our community's growth, introducing a new form of the jet-set elite who want some desert solitaire of their own, perhaps to trade New York's 18 million inhabitants for our own paltry 800,000. Some will view Campbell Cliffs as a monstrosity of development, although because of its gated access, they won't actually have a chance to observe where, exactly, the sprawl is.

Yet others will view Campbell Cliffs with a note of pride, knowing that Tucson is blossoming into a very diverse community with the addition of wealthy buyers willing to purchase houses specifically designed for our desert environment rather then Neolithic fortresses like Hearst Castle.

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