The Del Webb Sun Cities Museum will reopen in December with an entirely new look and theme focusing on the historic role Sun City played in the creation of the American industry the world has come to know as the active-adult retirement community.
“Sun City: The Community That Changed a Nation” is the theme for the newest exhibit that awaits visitors when the museum reopens Sunday, Dec. 6. Exhibits will focus on the history of Sun City and how the community led the way in redefining what “retirement” means to most Americans.
The museum has been closed since early spring when it was shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The museum’s board of trustees and volunteers used the downtime to revamp the entire building to reflect the new theme, installing new exhibits, adding new signs and upgrading the overall facility.
The museum, 10801 W. Oakmont Drive, Sun City is housed in one of the first five model homes unveiled on the day Sun City first opened to the public Jan. 1, 1960.
“Most people know Sun City and Sun City West as great places to live,” said Bill Pearson, museum board of trustees member and a past president. “Unfortunately, too many new buyers aren’t aware of the remarkable history that comes along with their purchase. Since 1989, the Del Webb Sun Cities Museum has been working to help people understand how influential their communities were in shaping the age-restricted marketplace.”
Although there were a few adult-only retirement communities in existence when Sun City first opened in 1960 — neighboring Youngtown being one of them — Sun City was the first to bill itself as an “active-adult retirement community.”
Unique to Sun City was its focus on recreation and activity. Rather than promise homebuyers what would eventually be built in terms of recreational amenities, Del Webb Corporation officials took the then-unheard of step of physically constructing those facilities prior to opening the community.
When homebuyers visited Sun City on opening day, they were greeted by five model homes, a shopping center, a recreation center and a golf course.
The response from the public was overwhelming. More than 100,000 people visited the community over the first 72 hours and company officials sold 237 homes worth $2.5 million. By the end of the first month, all 400 home lots were sold.
The active-adult retirement industry was off and running. The museum’s new exhibit celebrates that initial success, but also documents how the community’s continued success over the years helped redefine what it meant to retire in America.
For instance, early Del Webb Corporation advertisements promoting Sun City generally depicted retirees sitting in rocking chairs or sitting in a chair reading a newspaper. Once they experience a “new way of life” in Sun City, those same retirees are shown jogging, golfing, playing shuffleboard and, most important, having fun while surrounded by new friends.
Whether the ads accurately depicted life in Sun City was irrelevant. The images created a reputation and a brand that remains strong 60 years later. A display of the early advertisements used by the Del Webb Corporation to promote Sun City throughout the nation is part of the new exhibit.
“Virtually every ad featured the ‘new active way of life’ mantra,” said Mr. Pearson. “The homes were nicely appointed, but buyers were most excited by the concept of being ‘back in the game.’ Retirement no longer meant being relegated to babysitting the grandchildren. It truly changed how seniors thought of retirement.”
The exhibit also showcases hundreds of historic photographs buried deep in the museum’s archives and displayed publicly for the first time in decades.
“Buried in closets, cupboards and closets were all of the original ads, the model home brochures and 3,000-plus digitized photos,” said Mr. Pearson.
Throughout the summer, volunteers sifted through the archives in search of the right material to tell the story of how Sun City’s evolution led the way in establishing how retirement communities everywhere continue to operate to this day.
The move to refocus the museum to depict and promote the community’s role in history was initiated in 2018 when Don Tuffs, board of trustees pesident, created a strategic planning committee. He asked the small group to identify museum goals for the next five years and the decision was made to lay claim to the one aspect of Sun City that, although obvious, had been generally ignored by most residents.
“While there were other communities dedicated to senior living, none focused on an active lifestyle,” said Mr. Tuffs. “Sun City was the first of its kind.”
Mr. Tuffs was a member of the Del Webb marketing team for many years and credits the company’s early vision and promotional campaigns for creating a concept that remains as strong today as it did in the 1960s.
“Sun City completely changed how Americans viewed retirement,” said Mr. Tuffs. “No longer were you given a gold watch and set off to pasture. Sun City was a new beginning and just the start of your golden years — and for many, the best years. It gave a lot of people then, and now, a reason to look forward to retirement.”
Renovations over the summer included restoring the living room and one of the bedrooms to an early-1960s motif. Returning the bedroom to its original appearance was a labor of love for Museum Trustee Barb Wagers. Her grandparents once lived in the house that now houses the museum. She still vividly recalls how the bedroom once looked when, as a young girl, she would spend time at grandma’s house.
Museum tours are limited to small groups. Face masks and social distancing will be required.
Reservations are required to enter the building. Reservations will be accepted beginning Tuesday, Dec. 1 and can be made by visiting delwebbsuncitiesmuseum.org or calling 623-974-2568.