Thank the ‘Kactus Kid’ for TMC’s landscaping legacy

Tucson Medical Center is marking its 70th anniversary this year, commemorating the day its first patient was admitted, on Nov. 9, 1944.

The picturesque grounds of Tucson Medical Center have always fostered a healing environment, bringing extensive elements of the Sonoran Desert to the campus at Grant and Craycroft. And so it has been since the days of the Desert Sanatorium, the first occupant of the site.

One man’s handiwork is most responsible for this longstanding heritage – the man known as the “Kactus Kid.”

Rutger Porter aka: The Kactus Kid

Rutger Porter
aka: The Kactus Kid

Rutger Porter was the man with the shovel and the pickup truck – the man who transplanted a wide variety of desert plants to create a dazzling desert landscape at the Desert Sanatorium in the late 1920s.  The owner of the Desert San, Anna Erickson, hired Porter because of his agricultural expertise and love of local plants. Desert San Cactus 2Porter and his friend, author Harold Bell Wright, researched and located the cacti and other plants that made the Desert Sanatorium famous as a beautiful desert destination.

When Erickson donated the Desert San to the community to become Tucson Medical Center, the scenery was part of the deal. Throughout its history, groundskeepers have been valuable members of the team that makes TMC a unique place of healing. The patios and open spaces have given patients and their families a connection with nature that few other hospitals could match.

Tucson Medical Center’s landscaping has been recently enhanced during major construction projects, with new walking trails and roads around the campus – recognizing the legacy of the Kactus Kid.

Beyond TMC’s boundaries, Rutger Porter and wife Bernice left an additional legacy, apparent today at Tucson Botanical Gardens. The home where the Porters raised their family and ran a plant nursery now forms the core of Tucson Botanical Gardens (TBG), on Alvernon Way just south of Grant Road.

As TMC marks its 70th anniversary of patient care, TBG marks its 40th anniversary at its Alvernon site this year – with a special gala coming up in October. The details are on their web site:

From one community institution to another: Happy Anniversary!TMC70Final

What about the decree that kept TMC a single-story hospital?

Tucson Medical Center is marking its 70th anniversary this year, commemorating the day its first patient was admitted, on Nov. 9, 1944.

It was something of a local truism in past years that Tucson Medical Center was prohibited by code, deed or law from building any structures taller than one story.

There was a whiff of truth to the tale…. but the stipulation about building height expired more than half a century ago.

The one-story story dates back to the days of the Desert Sanatorium, the health retreat founded by Dr. Bernard Wyatt in the 1920s out in the desert northeast of Tucson. The Desert San was transferred to financial backers Alfred and Anna Erickson in 1927, and the Ericksons built a home on the site as their winter retreat away from New York City.

After her husband’s death, Anna Erickson held the Desert San until 1943, when the Depression and World War II had left the facility no longer viable. She donated it to become a community hospital – and continued living part of the year in the Erickson home on campus.

Anna Erickson, outside her two-story home on the TMC campus

Anna Erickson, outside her two-story home on the TMC campus

Years later, the specification of the “Low-Level Concept” for the hospital finally appears in TMC’s 1959 deed to the medical office park across Grant Road. The deed reflects Anna Erickson’s desire for unobstructed views, stating that TMC…

“…hereby agrees with Erickson that it will not during her lifetime erect on any of the land which it shall hereafter acquire under this agreement any building which shall exceed one story in height.”

That agreement only lasted a couple of years, as it became void upon Mrs. Erickson’s death in February 1961. Yet, that agreement cast a shadow for many years, as the hospital considered and rejected several high-rise concepts.

After extensive preparation work by TMC in 2006 and 2007, the Tucson City Council unanimously approved a Planned Area Development plan that now governs how vertical construction could take place on the Tucson Medical Center campus. Today, TMC has upgraded its grounds and facilities with new roads and walkways, plus larger patient care areas. TMC now celebrates 70 years of patient care with a new four-story “skyscraper” that houses sophisticated surgical and patient care services.


“Strange potency” of Tucson’s desert sun and air drew health enthusiasts

Tucson Medical Center is marking its 70th anniversary this year, commemorating the day its first patient was admitted, on Nov. 9, 1944.


Years before Tucson Medical Center was born, a world-renowned health care institution – the Desert Sanatorium – grew on this “remote site” out in the desert, four miles east of Tucson’s city limits.

The Desert Sanatorium grew out of the vision of one man: Bernard L. Wyatt, M.D. He pursued his interest in treating tuberculosis and other ailments with Arizona’s sunlight and clean air, creating the Desert San in 1925.dr wyatt 1920

Why did he choose Tucson as the site of his institution? As Wyatt later wrote in a single long vivid sentence, his choice was “…the result of studying the strange potency of that Arizona mesa land, a continuation of the Sonoran desert across the Mexican border, where for years in increasing numbers have poured invalids and semi-invalids, particularly old people, eager to luxuriate in warm, dry air, half a mile above sea level and in a baking sun whose blazing light has set countless artists crazy in the endeavor to put on canvas the hard outlines and color of the southwest desert scenery.”

Wyatt’s role at the Desert Sanatorium changed from owner to physician director in 1927 when he conveyed the title to the new owner, his financial backer, Alfred W. Erickson. And in 1943, it was Erickson’s widow, Anna, who donated the Desert Sanatorium to the community, provided a public fundraising campaign could support the institution. By late 1944, Tucson Medical Center was fully operational as our community non-profit hospital, still basking in the ‘strange potency’ of the desert environment.


Tucson Medical Center | 5301 E. Grant Road | Tucson, Arizona 85712 | (520) 327-5461