As progress in Apache Junction steams ahead to pave the way for urbanization, it also leaves in its wake the last sepia-toned vestiges of the wildest Western town in the East Valley. The Grand Hotel — which once drew to Apache Junction the likes of John Wayne, Audie Murphy and Elvis Presley — will be razed by its new owner, Apache Junction Town Centre, LLC.
The development group acquired the property in 2002 as part of a sweeping purchase of more than 100 acres around the hotel for the Crossroads Redevelopment project. The redevelopment, which could be finished by 2020, aims to transform downtown Apache Junction into a modern, urban area of highly concentrated housing and tall buildings.
The scheduled April demolition of the Grand Hotel will illustrate the cyclical nature of Apache Junction history. The city was noted in the early half of this century as a resort destination for big-name actors who starred in Westerns shot at nearby Apacheland Movie Ranch. But the prominence of the Grand Hotel faded as the property was passed from owner to owner, finally giving way as Apache Junction began a rebirth as a modern city.
“I saw what the hotel was doing in its day.” said Hank Sheffer, a 59-year-old volunteer for the Superstition Mountain Historical Society. “But it served its purpose. To have the hotel on property with all that value and just sit there like a bump on a pickle . . .”
The last owner of the hotel, Art Grandlich, died in 2002, and his widow sold the hotel soon thereafter. The last overnight guest of the Grand checked out on May 1, 2002, leaving only a collection of businesses inside the building. And when the last tenants move out this fall, the Grand Hotel will exist only in the records of the Superstition Mountain Historical Society.
The society’s vast archives are contained in the Tempe residence of Greg Davis, who built an addition to his home just to contain the accumulation of newspaper clippings and artifacts dating back to the territorial days of Arizona. Davis, 60, is one of the founding members of the Superstition Mountain Historical Society. He said Apache Junction may have reached a point where the hotel and the culture it represents are fading away.
“I guess it’s seen its day,” he said of the Grand. “Maybe it’s time to move on. It’s no longer a focal point.”
The first official day of the Grand Hotel came on Sept. 28, 1960, when developer John B. Mills opened the doors of the Superstition Ho Hotel — a name that would change often throughout the passing decades.
“Put on your Sunday duds and come on out,” reads the official invitation to the grand opening gala. “We’d be mighty proud to have you join us for the big celebration.”
Mills paid $1.8 million to build the Superstition Ho, which was constructed in a wagon-wheel formation. Each of the spokes was a separate wing of the hotel — and its 133 rooms were “all airconditioned,” boasted an advertisement from the early 1960s.
Davis, flipping through yellowed newspaper clippings that described the hotel, said it was quite the hot spot in its early years, as it hosted both Western movie actors and jetsetters who traveled to the Superstition Mountains.
“It was the focal point of all activity,” he said. “I’ve seen it so crowded during the 1960s that you couldn’t get in.”
But the golden age of Westerns filmed in Pinal County ended, and the Superstition Ho Hotel passed through the hands of several owners.
Meanwhile, Apache Junction grew and surrounded the property.
During the late 1960s, the name changed to Superstition Inn and the people there struggled to make a profit — sometimes outside the boundaries of the law.
On April 11, 1965, Pinal County sheriff ’s deputies raided one of the suites to close down a full-scale gambling operation. They confiscated tables for roulette, craps, blackjack and poker, and chips, dice and playing cards.
A flustered Ed Ehmann, then the manager, tried to explain to the Apache Sentinel newspaper at the time how a guest was able to run a casino right under his nose:
“I have plenty of problems without trying to find out what each of our guests do in their rooms,” he said.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Superstition Inn continued to operate as a hotel and also leased rooms on a long-term basis. The restaurant and bar there were popular local haunts — cheeseburgers cost around a dollar, according to advertisements from the era. Finally, in 1979, a fire nearly destroyed the building.
But only a year later, it was rebuilt and big plans were again afoot for the hotel, which now sat squarely in downtown Apache Junction.
Art and Betsey Grandlich purchased the property, with plans to add a classic car museum. In October 1980, the Grand Old Cars Museum opened to showcase 135 vehicles — an addition to the newly renamed Grand Hotel. But both the hotel and museum operated without much financial success during the 1990s, until July 7, 2002, when Art Grandlich died at 73 of heart failure.
Apache Junction Town Centre will raze the Grand Hotel in April to make way for the redevelopment of the downtown. Dave Fackler of Apache Junction Town Centre said there really isn’t much else to do with the hotel.
It’s run-down, he said, filled with asbestos and sits on what will become prime real estate. Fackler said no one ever approached the developer to oppose the demolition of the hotel.
“We haven’t run into that much romance,” he said.
The success of the hotel sizzled briefly, Fackler said, and then vanished never to return.
“In the early years it was successful with the movie crowd,” he said. “But then it just didn’t catch on.”