El Rancho Merlita History

Listen carefully as the Tucson night falls at The Inns at El Rancho Merlita, and perhaps you can hear the faint echoes of its happy days in the 1950s and 60s, when it was cosmetic queen Merle Norman’s desert getaway. Inside the vast living room, where dramatic chiseled-pine beams radiate from the pink-tinted fireplace of locally mined rhyolite, there is the soft slap of cards in an endless bridge game, the clink of glasses, the low murmurs of conversation. Outside, young adult guests shriek happily in the dusk as they splash in the swimming pool, run through sprinklers, and lounge under the trees.

Surely, if the wind is right, you can catch a whiff of barbecue sizzling in the big brick pit down by Robb Wash. Chefs flown in from Los Angeles labor to provide meals for a crowd of 100 or more guests. “I have such fond memories,” says Pat Arndt, a third-generation Merle Norman Cosmetics employee who enjoyed long ranch weekends during the two decades Norman presided over the property. “It was a real vacation, all expenses paid. We’d come back and rave about it for months.”

Norman, who opened her first cosmetics studio in Southern California in 1931, became a part-time Tucsonan more or less by accident. According to Diana Kuhel Osborne, El Rancho Merlita’s current owner, Norman acquired the big tract of land off the old cattle trail that is now Wrightstown Road in a trade. The story goes that her brother, an architect in California, designed the home. Norman then set about building the wonderful 1950s ranch house—long and low-slung, with brick walls and a red tile roof. Huge picture windows and a long veranda wreathed by blooming jasmine overlooked what one newspaper article claimed was a 40-acre lawn.

This “ranch” was feminine and proud of it, a place where a five-foot-two dynamo garbed in flowing dresses presided over memorable weekends. “A classy lady, but not haughty. Caring…” Arndt, now a Realtor and Amado resident, recalls of Norman. “I don’t want to say humble, because she wasn’t. She had come a long way from passing out makeup samples on the beach in Venice, California… but you could sit and talk to her.”

The rhyolite fireplace was a lot pinker in those days—Osborne has applied a taupe wash to calm it down—as was the predominantly pink-and-yellow flagstone floor. The fireplace still sports a tiny built-in grill, for those nights one might not want to hike down to the barbecue pit. Norman’s own quarters boasted a round pink bed, with cosmetics memorabilia and antique containers decorating shelves beside the master fireplace. Even the curvaceous wrought-iron screen doors were distinctly female. When Osborne restored the ranch house, she was able to save most of the original tile and fixtures in two guest baths—one in sky blue and yellow, the other in black, burgundy, and pink.

Merle Norman was known for inviting employees from around the country for all-expenses-paid ranch vacations.

Every year for the Fourth of July, Norman chartered two Greyhound buses to transport her employees and their spouses — no children allowed — on a hot overnight ride from Los Angeles to Tucson. “The first thing we’d do was put on our bathing suits and get in the pool,” Arndt says. Favored guests and high-ranking employees, such as Arndt’s mother, got to sleep in the ranch house or the nearby guest house. Everyone else got a rented roll-away bed to park on the veranda or under the stars.

Days would be filled with nonstop card games indoors. Outside, guests romped in the tree-shaded swimming pool or played shuffleboard. Norman rented clubs so that her guests could play her nine-hole golf course. Horses were stabled south by Pima Road. Arndt recalls the excitement of cowboys driving the herd up the wash one year so guests could ride.

Norman, who was already in her sixties when she built Rancho Merlita, passed away in 1972. She left the property to Tom Dixon, her longtime personal assistant, who lived there until 2004, when he sold the last 13 acres to Osborne.

“The History of Rancho Merlita,” by Rebecca Boren for Madden Media