Heading West

A DESIRE TO BUILD A CHURCH designed by one of his sons resulted in Sundt expanding into Arizona. M.M. had always hoped for a son who would design churches. Thoralf accepted the role and studied architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. Upon graduation he went to work for the Bureau of Architecture for the Methodist Church, designing houses of worship all over the U.S. In 1929, he designed a church for the growing town of Tucson, Arizona. M.M. thought it would be wonderful if he could get the job of building something his son designed, so he bid on the project and dispatched another son, John, to take the documents to Tucson. Bidders were required to be licensed in the state, and when John filled out the application, he listed the company’s name as “M.M. Sundt Construction Co.” M.M. Sundt got the church job. John stayed in Tucson to oversee construction and began bidding on other work as well.

The 1930s and the Great Depression

The 1930s was the decade of the Great Depression in America, and all businesses suffered. However, it wasn’t quite as dire for the construction business because as part of the relief efforts, the federal government pumped money into new government buildings as well as infrastructure projects such as dams, military bases, libraries and schools. The two divisions of Sundt—one in Las Vegas and the other in fast-growing Tucson—managed to survive nicely from this kind of work.

Building the University of Arizona

Sundt’s most significant Depression-era work came in 1936 and 1937, when the “Works Progress Administration” (WPA) funded grants to build several buildings at the University of Arizona in Tucson. (The WPA was created by the Federal Government to create jobs that would revitalize the economy.) Within a one-year period, M.M. Sundt was awarded contracts to build six projects:

ROTC Stables $24,342
(torn down years later when training military officers to ride horses was no longer required)           

Infirmary $33,720
(now the Charles P. Sonett Space Sciences Building)                                    

Women’s Physical Education Building – including swimming pool $104,398
(torn down in 2002 to make way for the new Student Union)                                                
Chemistry – Physics Building $218,409
(now called “Old Chemistry”)                                       

Auditorium $221,727
(remodeled in 1986 to become Centennial Hall)                                      

Administration Building $91,942
(now called the Robert L. Nugent Building)                             

TOTAL $ 730,538

What a deal! Six projects for less than three-quarters of a million dollars. And four of them are still in use today—a remarkable tribute to the quality and craftsmanship of Sundt in those early years.

John needed help in completing these jobs and he asked his architect brother Thoralf to help him. Thoralf had never really liked being an architect, so giving up his drafting table and moving to Tucson was an easy decision to make.

Thoralf’s son Robert later made note of the closeness of the Sundt family:

     “In the fall of 1936 my family lived in one unit of a four-unit apartment building a half block north of 6th Street on Tyndall Avenue…(O)ur family [was] on the ground floor on the north side. John Sundt and his family on the south side ground floor unit; and on the second floor level my cousin Gene Sundt and his bride Ruth were on the north side while the Sundt Company offices were on the south side. All the Sundts in Tucson were certainly together at that time.”

Sundt Expands Building in Tucson, Launches Custom Home Building

Other notable Tucson projects during this period included a mansion for Florence L. Pond, which became the El Dorado Resort and is now home to the Mountain Oyster Club. There was also the Stone Avenue Underpass, which became known as “Lake Elmira” because its poorly designed drainage system (not Sundt’s fault) could not keep up with heavy runoff after a monsoon thunderstorm. (Elmira was a free-spirited artist who liked to go skinnydipping in the underpass when it flooded). Also, Phelps Dodge, the giant copper-mining consortium, hired Sundt to build hospitals at Douglas and Morenci, plus a home for nurses and a remodeled superintendent’s residence at Clifton.

In spite of the Great Depression’s toll on business in general and home sales in particular, John Sundt decided in 1936 to start building custom homes in Tucson. His first effort, which would be a show home, was called El Encanto, Spanish for The Charm or Charmer. The home did not sell, though, so John and his wife, Marion, moved into the home, loved it, and stayed in it the rest of their lives.

Tucson Becomes Sundt Headquarters in Late 1930s

The two M.M. Sundt Construction Co. divisions, one in Tucson and the other in Las Vegas, worked autonomously for a few years and Mauritz often divided his time between Las Vegas, where he built businesses and private buildings as well as many homes, and Tucson, where he came to help John because Tucson was quickly outgrowing the Las Vegas branch. In the late 1930s John bought out his father’s interest in the company. Tucson became the headquarters for M.M. Sundt Construction Co. The operation in Las Vegas became the firm’s New Mexico Division.

In the booklet
From Small Beginnings … Gene Sundt told about his grandfather working with the crew on the Colishaw ranch house in southern Arizona:
     “One afternoon a thundershower sent us all running for the cover of the tool shed — all but Grandpa. About half an hour later Grandpa, aged 71, came into the tool shed soaked to the skin and said, ‘What is the matter with you fellows? Do you think you’re made of sugar and are you afraid you’ll melt if you get wet?’
     “We all went back to work, but the rain soon stopped so we didn’t melt.”

World War II Brings More Growth

With the clouds of the coming war becoming apparent, Sundt won bids on several military jobs, including expansion of the Davis-Monthan Army Air Corps Base in Tucson and housing at Fort Huachuca in southeast Arizona. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and the U.S. went to war against Japan, Germany and Italy, the company’s business expanded dramatically.

Shortly after World War II broke out, M.M. Sundt passed away at the age of 78. The Norwegian immigrant, who came to America with simple ship’s carpenter skills and a determination to succeed, had founded a construction company that would grow and prosper for many years to come.