History of the O'Connor Institute

September 28, 2020

Type: Interview
Author: Gay Wray
Link to original not currently available.


The following account of the founding of the Sandra Day O'Connor Institute was submitted by Gay Wray, long-time board member and former co-chair of the Institute's Board of Directors.

In February of 2006, the Secretary of the Smithsonian at that time was Larry Small. He was out here in the southwest and Sandra wanted to meet him. They had the same boss, Chief Justice Rehnquist who was the Chief Regent of the Smithsonian, and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. I invited them all for lunch, Sandra and John arrived, Secretary Small and his assistant, Ginny Clark, and Barbara Barrett, the new member of the Smithsonian National Board.

The six of us sat down for lunch at my round dining table. During the course of the luncheon, Sandra looked at me and said "They are tearing down our house here, the one John and I built". Secretary Small explained to Sandra that the Smithsonian has some of the oldest buildings in DC that they would have to potentially redo or tear them down, and Sandra said again "Like my house". Barbara and I just looked at each other.

As Barbara was leaving after lunch, she said to me, "Where's the house?" I replied, "Call me in half an hour and I'll meet you there." We met at the house on Denton Lane [in Paradise Valley]. There was no parking, it was in a residential area, the whole place was a mess.

We found out who owned the house and it turned out to be the son of a friend of ours, so we approached him and he was not interested in doing anything. After more thought, we thought about the 501(c)(3), tax-deductible approach and the owner became interested. We realized Sandra had been honored all over the country, but never in her home state.

There was the Sandra Day O'Connor Court Building with a large statue of Sandra.
We went to the Dean of the Sandra Day O'Connor Law School at ASU, Chris White, and we asked her if the University might want the house on campus, a meeting place for the law students, etc. Over the course of the next 6 months, we went back a few times and realized they didn't want it there.

Next stop was the Desert Botanical Garden, Sandra had been on the board there. They were willing to store the house, but not put it up. They were also in the middle of a capital campaign and were solely focused on that.

By chance, we luckily met the mayor of Tempe at that time, Hugh Hallman. He knew we were looking for a place for the house and mentioned he had three places we might be able to put it. He also introduced us to a woman named Janie Ellis, who knew about adobe houses.

We met at her residence on Cattletrack [in Scottsdale] with Sandra and Hugh, and Sandra asked if she was related to George Ellis. Janie's father, George, turned out to be one of the architects for the house.

So Barbara and I went to Hugh's offices, we looked at the three places and picked Papago Park because it was higher, more protected and there was a brook nearby, and Sandra and John had lived near water.

Now we had to figure out how to move an adobe house. That's where Janie Ellis became the miracle worker. It took three years, maybe four, the bricks were all numbered, and only four or five bricks were broken.

As the house was finishing up, it's rebuilt in the new location, Sandra turned to me and said, "Well this will be the perfect place to launch the programs." I said, "Programs? We haven't talked about any programs." And that's how the O'Connor House became the Sandra Day O'Connor Institute.