Impact of Riordan family goes beyond historical mansion
Between NAU and the rest of Flagstaff sits a unique, arts & craft-style mansion from the early 1900s. This elegant structure is known as the famous Riordan Mansion.
Since 1980, the east side of the long-standing duplex has been owned by the state of Arizona and managed by Arizona State Parks. In 1986, the rest of the mansion was opened to the public.
However, there is more to the Riordan Mansion than just a house. It was the original owners, the Riordan family, who helped make Flagstaff what it is today.
The Riordan family started out with humble beginnings when Mathew Riordan, his wife Celine and their daughters moved to Flagstaff from Chicago when Matthew was offered a job to become the manager of the Ayer Lumber Mill. Shortly after Matthew moved to Flagstaff, he encouraged his other two brothers, Tim and Michael, to join him working at the Lumber Mill.
The family got their first taste of success in 1887 when Matthew purchased the Ayer Lumber Mill Company and created the Arizona Lumber Company. The family grew quickly and became involved with the Babbitt brothers. One of the Riordan family members, Tim, even ended up marrying one of the brothers’ cousins, Caroline Metz.
In 1903, with a flourishing business and a large family, the Riordan’s decided to upgrade to a newer, larger home. The family contacted Santa Fe Railroad architect Charles Whittlesey to design their new home for the two families; one side was for Tim and Caroline, and the other side was for Michael and his wife Elizabeth. Charles Whittlesey is the same architect who designed the El Tovar Hotel in the Grand Canyon. Each family had approximately 6,000 square feet of living space and the two homes were connected by a large common room.
Some of the family’s accomplishments include bringing the first catholic school, church and priest to Flagstaff. They also discovered and named Lake Mary, which began as a backup water supply for the town. They helped get NAU started in 1899 and helped convince Percival Lowell to come and build the observatory in town.
Lowell was looking for a place to build an observatory in Arizona; he originally looked at Tombstone, Tucson and Prescott for possible locations. When he and his team reached Flagstaff, Matthew was interested in getting a scientific influence to the town, so he offered to make a road and place for Lowell’s observatory up on Mars Hill. Lowell accepted the offer and ended his search.
Many of the family members were not well educated; Matthew didn’t get beyond 8th grade and Tim went into the circus at age 13. However, both understood the value and importance of education. The family helped get NAU started and donated much of their 55-acre property to the state so the university could be built. As of today, the Riordan Mansion only sits on five acres.
Tours of the house are given throughout the year and the mansion holds special events. During Christmas and Halloween, there are special themed tours.
The Riordan Mansion is not considered to be a haunted house, but there is one, odd story to the family. In the 1940s, Caroline and Tim were visiting their daughter Mary in California. The maid back at the mansion was going up into the chapel area to put linens away. The light bulb on the altar went out and, shortly after, the light flickered back on. Right after that, the family got notice that, around the same time the light went out, Caroline had passed away in California.
Currently, Riordan Mansion is not being run by the state due to budget issues. The park is now self-supporting and is kept up and running by donations and customers. In 2009, the park was scheduled to be closed and the Riordan Action Network got started. Through the persistence of the park itself and an agreement with the Historical Society and State Park system, an agreement has been made to keep the park open for at least three more years.