Historical arial photograph of Camelback Mountain, Praying Monk and the surrounding valley.

Arizona, Culture

An Arizona Legend: The History of Sanctuary Camelback Mountain, A Gurney’s Resort & Spa

By Editor 2023, August

Sanctuary Camelback Mountain, A Gurney's Resort & Spa enjoys a legendary history filled with Hollywood celebrities and international tennis stars. The story begins in the early 1950s when the unique mountainside property was bought by a group of prominent investors including Hollywood stars John Ireland, Joanne Dru and Sydney Chaplin, Charlie Chaplin’s son. Ireland envisioned a prestigious racquet club nestled into the north slope of Camelback Mountain and modeled after the Racquet Club in Palm Springs.

Historical arial photo showing the construction of Paradise Valley Racket Club on Camelback Mountain.

After acquiring the site, the group hired architect Hiram Hudson Benedict to design a clubhouse and a prototype casita. Benedict was a protégée of Frank Lloyd Wright and was well known for his work in Carefree, designing what later became The Carefree Resort. Ireland and Dru developed the clubhouse, five tennis courts and a prototype casita which became John Ireland’s Arizona home.

Known as the Paradise Valley Racquet Club throughout the 1950s, the tennis club quickly attracted a bevy of stars including nationally known tennis figures Pancho Seguero, Ken Rosewall and Pancho Gonzales.  Soon, Hollywood celebrities like Charlie McCarthy, Edgar Bergen and Robert Stack were also frequent guests.

Historical photo of celebs including Clint Eastwood, Jaja Gabor and others on the tennis courts at Sanctuary.

In 1965, local real estate entrepreneurs Les Heitel and Vik Jackson brought together a group to buy the property. That group included Jackson, his father Russell Jackson, and William H. O’Brien, President of Southwest Small Business Investment Company. Together, they purchased the 53 acres that included the clubhouse, casitas and tennis courts. Jackson’s group contacted tennis entrepreneur John Gardiner and with his wife, Barbara, Gardiner decided to expand their California tennis operation to Arizona. The owners agreed to operate the property both as a membership club and a resort. They constructed 41 casitas on the site and developed a dozen large homes around the perimeter of the property.

Photo of John Gardner standing in front of the John Gardner Tennis Ranch sign.

In 1967, a local civic group, headed by Senator Barry Goldwater, formed to preserve Camelback Mountain. Vik Jackson and the owners of what was then John Gardiner’s Tennis Ranch, provided strong support for that movement which eliminated any development of land above the 1,700-foot level of Camelback Mountain. To make certain that the mountain scape was preserved, the owners of the tennis facility transferred acreage from their property into the preserve.

In addition to helping to save Camelback Mountain, the resort also supported community causes by holding celebrity charity tennis tournaments on the property. The first tournament benefited the Arizona Children’s Colony and attracted many Hollywood stars including Jimmy Durante, Liza Minelli, Dino Martin, Desi Arnez Jr. and others.

Historical photo of Elton John with the Sanctuary Tennis Pros.

The resort also sponsored the Senator’s Cup tennis tournament, which attracted prominent members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. In time, this prestigious tournament brought together industrialists and nationally known political names who battled it out in front of the gallery.

 Historical photo of a group playing doubles at the Tennis Ranch. 

Over the years the resort continued to attract business leaders, sports stars and Hollywood “names” such as Jack Kemp, Dan and Marilyn Quayle, Robert Loggia, Art Buchwald, Ken Rosewall, Johnny Carson, Stan Smith, Jimmy Conners and others who found this private hideaway the perfect escape from a public and busy life.

In May 2000, The Ranch on Camelback Mountain closed its doors for a complete renovation and transformation of the property.  Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain Resort & Spa opened in March 2001, and joined the Gurney’s Resorts hotel group in 2021, renamed Sanctuary Camelback Mountain, A Gurney’s Resort & Spa.

Experience the history for yourself. Join us for a week or a day, or just stop by for a cocktail and to enjoy the views!