A History of Del Webb
Delbert E. Webb was a brilliant, innovative, visionary and risk taker who always knew how to get things done better. He perfected the modern notion of a retirement community when he launched the first ever “Master Planned Community” of Sun City, Arizona. This innovation launched Del Webb into the national spotlight and made him an American icon and a mega-success.
Del Webb was born into a wealthy family, in Fresno, California, May 17, 1899. In the early years, Del attended school, loved baseball and was learning carpentry from his dad. In 1914, his father lost everything when his construction company failed. Del quit school to become a carpenter’s apprentice and later a shipfitter to make a living while pursuing a career in baseball. Webb was a good pitcher and played on minor league teams in Oakland, Modesto, Alameda and other places. During an exhibition game in 1927, at San Quentin Prison, he caught Typhoid Fever from an inmate and nearly died. This ended Del’s pursuit of a baseball career when his weight dropped from 200 pounds to under 100. He and his wife moved to Phoenix in an attempt to recover his health, which he did.
A Start in Construction
In 1928, he started a carpentry job on a building for a small construction company that seemed to be working on a shoestring budget. The company’s financial woes became apparent when one Friday he went to the bank to cash his weekly paycheck and funds weren’t there. The next day the owner of the building came to Del and said that he felt he knew what he was doing and asked if he would finish the job. This was the inauspicious start of Del Webb’s contracting and building career. His total starting assets was one concrete mixer, 10 wheelbarrows, 20 shovels and 10 picks. Construction jobs began to come his way and, in-spite of the depression, by 1933 he had built a 3 million dollar operation. In 1935, he opened a branch office in Los Angeles and in 1938 his success continued as he built an addition for the Arizona State Capitol.
Del was always well organized. In the early years of his contracting business, he had procedural manuals written to cover every aspect of the business. Instead of rag-tag construction shacks, he used portable offices identical in color and furnishings with uniformity at every building site. Webb’s organizational mandate paid handsomely during the war years when construction work became frenzied. This helped make him rich.
Beyond the organizational aspect of business, Del was also adept at creating social contacts. Del golfed at 14 courses around the country. He constantly cultured friendships or relationships with politicians, the wealthy, celebrities and all kinds of people. He knew J. Edgar Hoover (FBI), was good friends with the eccentric Howard Hughes, golfed with Bing Crosby, played golf with presidential hopeful Barry Goldwater, and the list goes on.
His business success and social contacts with other influential people provided him the opportunity to once again be associated with his lifelong passion, the game of baseball. Del Webb must have been very happy when in 1945 he and two partners purchased the New York Yankees for $2.8 million dollars. During his 19 years of ownership the Yankees won 15 Pennants and 10 World Series! Over this period a lot of Yankee tickets went to help clinch construction contracts, influence politicians and others. They sold the team in 1964 for $14 million dollars.
A Lurid History
Not all of Del Webb’s construction contracts could be considered ideal. In fact, there are a few infamous examples of the company taking on historically objectionable projects. In 1942, during World War II, he received a military contract to build the Poston War Relocation Center near Parker, Arizona. There were over 17,000 Japanese-Americans interned there, mostly from California. In 1988, President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act to compensate more than 100,000 people of Japanese descent who were incarcerated in internment camps during World War II.
Another lurid example of Del Webb’s history is the company’s associations in Las Vegas gaming. Legalized gambling attracted organized crime to Las Vegas due to the fact that Casinos were nearly an all cash business, making it difficult to track the flow of money. Del Webb’s first job in Las Vegas occurred when he was hired by gangster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel to finish the Flamingo Hotel and Casino. Del was hired for this job because of cost over-runs tied to poor planning. Siegel, who was later murdered for “skimming” Flamingo construction monies, purportedly told Webb not to worry for his personal safety while working for the mob because mobsters only killed one another. Del Webb went on to do a lot of important construction jobs in “Sin City”. When Del Webb went public in 1960 he purchased the Sahara, which he had previously built, and others including a Casino in Lake Tahoe. Webb brought honesty and “Legitimacy” to Las Vegas and the gaming industry.
Back in 1948, Webb was contracted to build 600 houses and a shopping center called Pueblo Gardens in Tucson, Arizona. This project triggered the idea to do a retirement community. He researched why previous attempts by others were not very successful. Through his group’s research
Del Webb came to the conclusion that people needed to be convinced that they would want to live in an active adult community with great weather, golf, recreation, fitness, swimming, tennis – a perpetual “Week of Sundays”. This idea was developed into the concept of “Sun City” which would become the first ever “Master Planned Community”. By making this community age restricted, the resort-like amenities could be enjoyed by like-minded people. Although Sun City was called a city, it would never be incorporated and therefore would always remain private. This allowed the enforcement of age restrictions. Not knowing for sure if there would be a profitable demand for such a place, Webb took a chance and bought 20,000 acres on the outskirts of Phoenix. Part of this land was for a future Sun City! Every street, building lot, golf course and recreation center was planned and mapped out. Before their opening, they constructed five air-conditioned model homes, a shopping center, a grocery store, drug store, recreation center, and a golf course. They advertised nationally on radio, TV, newspapers, and anticipated 10,000 visitors during their grand opening on January 1-3, 1960. During those three days the area was jammed with traffic as 100,000 people came to the event! Sun City, Arizona became a huge success. Today’s population is about 40,000 with over 27,000 homes. Other Phoenix vicinity communities built were SC West, SC Grand, and SC Festival totaling about 34,500 more homes. In 2001, during the construction of Sun City Palm Desert, Del Webb was sold to Pulte Homes, for $1.8 billion dollars with annual sales projected at 28,000 homes. Pulte continued to use the Del Webb brand. One of their first sole projects was Sun City Shadow Hills 2003-2016. Currently, Pulte/Del Webb have announced that they are going to construct another 55+ community in Rancho Mirage dubbed “Del Webb Rancho Mirage“. Today, there are Del Webb Sun City Communities in Arizona, California, New Mexico, Nevada, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Texas, Georgia, Tennessee, and Illinois.
Time Magazine selected Del Webb as “Man of The Year” in 1962 and featured his picture on their front cover. In the year 2000, he was named to the Gaming Hall of Fame.
Del Webb was a very engaging and energetic individual that perpetually migrated to better solutions in every aspect of his business career. These attributes propelled him to become an American Icon. Del Webb died in 1974 from cancer. He was 75. Del was married twice and had no children. He left a substantial amount of his wealth to the Del E. Webb Foundation, which funds, medical projects in Arizona, California and Nevada.