Exploring Vintage Sun City Arizona: A Look Back at the 60s

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I’ve been a desert dweller several times in my life and have become intrigued by the Sun City and Del Webb phenomenon in the Phoenix West Valley. In the 1960s, developer Del Webb and his partners figured out that the parents of the post-WWII baby boom would be interested in retiring or living part-time in an inexpensive, suburban desert community made just for them. Picture swimming pools, rec centers, social clubs, golf courses, libraries, shopping centers, and one-level desert homes—affordable yet with modern conveniences. And, all for those over 55 years of age. This early Del Webb community—Sun City Arizona—was born just west of Phoenix in the 1960s. At the time, there was not much there but they had a train stop! The development corporation opened with just five model homes. It was reported that on the first day thousands of cars lined up to get in. The previously unknown concept of active retirement living was going to be a success. In the company’s first year, they sold 2,000 homes. The area has grown and is a contemporary mecca for those over 55, but you can still visit and explore vintage 60s Sun City, Arizona.

Vintage 60s Sun City

Opening day, the model homes and amenities were all ready for potential buyers to see. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose from the collection at the Sun Cities Area Historical Society

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Modern Retirement Living—60s Style

So why such a hit? Before the launch of the active retirement community concept, retirees were expected to sit on their front porches in rocking chairs. But, things were changing. People were living longer, and employers were offering pensions and retirement benefits.

If you were of retirement age and feeling fit, what would be next? My father took up golf when he retired and my parents moved to our summer cabin in the redwoods to live year-round. There, they could relax and feed the birds, work on their genealogies, participate in volunteer work, and entertain grandchildren. And, they traveled.

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60s Sun City Arizona

Wouldn’t this brochure catch your eye? Photo by Elizabeth R Rose from the collection at the Sun Cities Area Historical Society

The Vintage 60s Sun City Community

Sun City Arizona was attractive to retirees for several reasons. It was a carefully planned, resident-directed, totally self-contained community with homes for every need and budget. The community—designed with wide, landscaped streets—included shopping centers, recreation facilities, hospitals, churches, and more. You could select a small patio home, a condo, a duplex, or a free-standing elegant home on the golf course. Some homes were even built around a lake. Residents bought paddle boats and paddled to their neighbors for happy hour!

Sun City Lake

Yes, there are lakes in Sun City! Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

Unique to Sun City were facilities such as the Sundome, a scaled-down version of the Hollywood Bowl stage where residents gathered on a tiered, grassy slope to enjoy music and entertainment.

Sun City Sunbowl

The Sunbowl is just one of the unique amenities built in the 60s at Sun City. The venue is still used today and hundreds of people gather on the grass to enjoy entertainment. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

As Sun City grew, additional golf courses, recreation centers, and facilities grew up as well. But what kept the community unique was the self-governance model. There were boards for the recreation centers, for the clubs, and for running the community—no mayor and no city council. https://www.amazon.com/Leisureville-Adventures-World-Without-Children/dp/0802144187?keywords=del+webb&qid=1625166638&sr=8-8&linkCode=ll1&tag=wanderwithwonder-20&linkId=6a0673656a7546fc731bdc6510d29b3f&language=en_US&ref_=as_li_ss_tl The residents planned events—community parades, the veterans’ gathering of flags for Flag Day—and started unique groups such as the Sun City Poms, made up of residents who kept fit by performing cheerleading moves.

Sun City Poms

The Sun City Poms created quite a stir and were written about near and far. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

All this is carefully chronicled by the Sun Cities Area Historical Society, some of it on display in the Del Webb Sun Cities Museum—a place where you can visit and get lost in the experience of the Sun Cities of the 60s.

Vintage 60s Sun City

The first model home in Sun City, Arizona has been lovingly restored. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

Visiting the First Model Home in Sun City

You’ll want to check the opening days and times (even in summer you can arrange a private tour), but you’ll not be sorry when you drive up to the pink ranch house on a residential street south of bustling Grand Avenue (Hwy 60) with a simple carport housing vintage golf carts.

Exploring the Model Home

This pink house, with a pink kitchen and pink bathroom, was the first of Del Webb’s model homes that people lined up to see on opening day, January 1, 1960. It’s a simple house, but when you go through the door, you’ll find yourself in a carefully appointed Sun City vintage home. The amazing touches are all carefully curated by volunteers and brimming with the 40s, 50s, and 60s home décor gifted from the community.

60s Sun City

When people moved to Sun City in the 60s, they brought their furniture with them so Sun City homes didn’t initially have a southwestern flair. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

Take a moment and look through the vintage records. Check out the ceramic black panther—a must-have for 50s décor.

Vintage Decor

This vintage panther fits right into the vintage living room. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

And then there’s the cocktail cart with vintage decanters and beverage sets, a common part of the lifestyle in the Sun Cities. Cocktails after golf, anyone?

Vintage Blakely Glasses

Blakely gas stations gave away these highly collectible frosted glasses in Arizona during the 50s and 60s. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

A Vintage Wow

My “wow moment” in Sun City Arizona was walking into the pink kitchen with its vintage pink appliances, placed against the pink tile wall.

60s Vintage Sun City

This all-pink kitchen included a recently donated 60s pink tea kettle. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

Dishes, not unlike those you may have seen in your grandmother’s home, set the table. It was all. Just. So. Pink!

Vintage 60's Sun City Kitchen

Museum finds for the pink kitchen included a pink stand mixer. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

As I went into the next room, with easy-to-read displays of the history of Sun City, I picked up a jar of marbles, just like those I collected as a kid, and eyed the vintage Monopoly game. I felt like sitting down at the kitchen table and spending the afternoon playing the game with some of the volunteers.

Vintage 60s Games

60s vintage games at the Sun Cities Museum. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

That would have been a great way to spend the afternoon on one of those hot Arizona days back in the 60s. Or, perhaps relax by the pool at the rec center.

Visiting Sun City Arizona Today

If you are lucky on your visit, you’ll run into Bill Pearson. He is a tireless volunteer and advocate of the historical society and the Sun City way of life. He will tell you, “When people buy here they oughta learn about the history and community of Sun City.” Pearson has written extensively on Sun City, Arizona, and participated on numerous governing boards in the community. He has written most of the text that you will read as you tour the museum and it’s clear it is a labor of love for him.

Vintage 60s Sun City Golf Cart

Bill Pearson rode this vintage golf cart in the parade celebrating the 50th anniversary of the founding of Sun City. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

I also met volunteers, both residents of the community and—in my opinion—rather young. They were just as enthusiastic as Bill, but perhaps for different reasons. It’s not unusual to meet second and even third-generation residents—children and grandchildren of those original residents. They all had such great memories of their visits that they have returned to buy at Sun City. https://www.amazon.com/Sun-City-West-Arizona-AZ/dp/B0947LDTQ7?dchild=1&keywords=sun+city+arizona&qid=1625167341&sr=8-5&linkCode=ll1&tag=wanderwithwonder-20&linkId=6347e49369fce2efe3fdf02ca84f1723&language=en_US&ref_=as_li_ss_tl Sun City evolved over the years. It is still a place where you immediately feel a sense of community and easily make friends. You’ll be surprised that behind some vintage-looking doors, you’ll find completely remodeled homes rivaling the looks of the newer Del Webb branded communities like Sun City Grand and Sun City Festival. The prices are right, the yards and green spaces are ample, and, well you have that Sun City lifestyle.

Vintage 60s Sun City

Residents continue to enjoy the original golf course and recreation center. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

As I finished my tour of the museum, I remembered going to estate sales in Sun City when I lived here in the past. I remember walking into homes furnished in 60s décor. Antique store owners lined up at the sales, which usually opened Thursday mornings, and we competed for vintage treasures—treasures just like I had seen at the museum. And, you still can find these collectibles in Sun City today.

For the Vintage Collector

Collectors of vintage cookware, memorabilia, and southwestern souvenirs will still enjoy checking out the estate sales. Look them up online or just go to Sun City early on a Thursday morning and look for the sandwich board signs. While opening day is best for finding treasures, sales usually run through Friday and Saturday as well, with markdowns at the end.

Vintage 60s Sun City

Find vintage and antique treasures from thrift shops in Sun City like the Lutheran Thrift Shop. Photo courtesy Lutheran Thrift Shop

If you don’t want to go collectible hunting during the estate sales, you can check out the thrift shops in Sun City and Youngtown. The Sun City thrift shops, all tax-free since they fund nonprofits, can be found in a vintage strip mall on West Peoria Avenue. Drive down North 107th Avenue and you will find this fun area. Nearby Youngtown (don’t you just love the name?) is home to the 4 Paws Rescue Bargain Boutique at 11129 W Michigan Ave. There are some fun finds there as well.

4 Paws Thrift Shop

The 4 Paws Thrift Shop in nearby Youngtown is a place to find vintage treasures. Photo courtesy 4 Paws Thrift Shop

Vintage 60s Sun City Arizona Reading List

Here are a few books that can help you explore the history of Sun City and the Phoenix West Valley. https://www.amazon.com/Sun-City-Bret-McKeand/dp/1531652468?dchild=1&keywords=del+webb&qid=1625166895&sr=8-12&linkCode=ll1&tag=wanderwithwonder-20&linkId=cf7a54a8ec0c84691b47b2556521e5a6&language=en_US&ref_=as_li_ss_tl https://www.amazon.com/Sun-Cities-Villages-Age-Restricted-Communities/dp/0813044480?dchild=1&keywords=sun+city&qid=1625187832&sr=8-12&linkCode=ll1&tag=wanderwithwonder-20&linkId=fa067b67aa30762bcc5dbd528529c37e&language=en_US&ref_=as_li_ss_tl

When You Go to Explore Vintage 60s Sun City Arizona

If you plan a summer visit, places often have shortened hours or close due to the triple-digit summer heat. So, check ahead before visiting. In the Sun Cities, a hefty part of the population is there only in the winter, thus the name “snowbirds.” But what amazing weather you will encounter in the winter! You’ll see Sun City residents driving their street-legal golf carts everywhere and see people out early in the morning playing golf, walking, playing pickleball, and more. And if you fall in love with Sun City, Arizona—as many have—you can rent a vacation home for a few months, if you plan ahead.

Vintage Kitchen Implement

Can anyone guess what this item in the museum’s pink kitchen was used for? Put your guesses in the comments! Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

Even if you have only a few hours as you drive through the Phoenix West Valley, consider taking time to explore vintage 60s Sun City at the Del Webb Sun Cities Museum. Follow their Facebook page. And, find out more about the Valley of the Sun from our Wander writers. In the 1960s, developer Del Webb figured out that the parents of the post-WWII baby boom would be interested in retiring or living part-time in an inexpensive, suburban desert community made just for them. Picture swimming pools, rec centers, social clubs, golf courses, libraries, shopping centers, and one-level desert homes—affordable yet with modern conveniences. This early Del Webb community, dubbed Sun City, was born just west of Phoenix in the 1960s. 

Written by Elizabeth Rose

Elizabeth Rose is back again in the Phoenix area after more than a decade living in New Mexico and Washington state. She travels throughout the West and beyond writing about destinations, accommodations, festivals, and restaurants, especially farm to table cuisine. As an expert in cultural tourism, her writing reflects that passion. She has won awards for her photography and accompanies her articles with her own images. She also provides photos for magazine covers, web sites and magazine articles (both print and online).

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  1. Nancy

    It’s an ice crusher.

    • ElizabethRose

      You got it Nancy!! I have to admit that I didn’t know. I thought perhaps it was a coffee grinder when I first saw it. But when you open it up it’s obvious that it is an ice crusher.

      • Susan Lanier-Graham

        So my mom had a similar one. She would put ice in and crush it for us when we were sick. Then, when my son was born, she would do that for him. It became a favorite keepsake when she gave it to him. It was damaged in one of his moves and he was devastated. I was shopping in a vintage store in Long Beach, CA and saw one in a window. I bought it and brought it home in my luggage to give to him. It stays on a shelf in the kitchen and I think he uses it every now and again just for nostalgia’s sake.

        • Elizabeth

          What a great memory!

  2. Bill Pearson

    Brilliantly written Elizabeth Rose and perfectly captures the essence of Sun City. Can’t wait to share this with many of our followers on the Facebook pages we post on. Kudos.

    • Elizabeth

      Thank you for your kind remarks. It’s a great place to visit and learn. I think you will be getting some requests for a visit this summer!

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