One of Phoenix's most interesting and unusual attractions is Mystery Castle. Located in the foothills of South Mountain, the 8,000 square foot structure is an architectural marvel. The 3-story, 18 room castle boasts 13 fireplaces, several patios, and hundreds of artifacts, antiques, and knick-knacks. And with parapets, turrets, peculiar winding staircases, and dozens of quirky features, it's truly one-of-a-kind.
The stories about how and why the castle was built and who occupied it are as fascinating as the castle's design, structure, and contents. And most people who read about and visit it are as captivated by the people involved, as they are by the dwelling itself.
Mystery Castle was constructed almost entirely from recycled materials from 1930 to 1945 by Boyce Luther Gulley, fulfilling his promise to his daughter, Mary Lou. In May, 1990 it was listed on the Phoenix Historic Property Register, and in 1999 was the subject of an Emmy Award-winning documentary.
Enjoy a tour of the castle, and savor the beautiful surrounding desert landscape and great views of Phoenix. There are a number of hiking trails nearby, including Holbert Trail in South Mountain Park.
When she was little, Boyce Luther Gulley's daughter Mary Lou loved castles, and he vowed that someday he would build her one.
Painting of Boyce, Inside the Castle
Boyce left his wife, Frances, and his toddler-daughter after being diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1929. He moved from Seattle, Washington to Phoenix, Arizona, believing the warm, dry climate might cure him. According to Mary Lou, Boyce told them he was leaving to pursue his dream of being an artist. Although he sent occasional letters to his family, they didn't know about his illness until years later.
When Boyce arrived in Phoenix, he filed a claim on two 20-acre parcels, and started building Mary Lou's castle in early 1930. He continued working on it until his death from cancer in 1945.
Right before he died, Boyce sent his family a letter explaining that he really left because he didn't want to expose them to tuberculosis, or make them watch him painfully die.
Why Boyce never returned to Seattle, and never sent for his family to join him in Phoenix, is part of the mystery.
Boyce Luther Gulley was an artist and a revolutionary recycler, as evidenced by Mystery Castle's design and construction. He salvaged items from the nearby local dump, including discarded metals, glass, auto parts, and assorted "junk." Old telephone poles became ceiling rafters, and various items Boyce discovered in the Southwest and Mexico are incorporated into his design. He used adobe and thousands of rocks, and the castle is held together by mortar, cement, caliche, and goat's milk.
Blackboards from an old Phoenix schoolhouse became the slate floor in the main living room, and wooden cart wheels became windows. Depression-era glass dishes form doorway transoms, and an old wooden wagon wheel is built into a wall. Boyce even used parts from his 1929 Stutz Bearcat to build Mystery Castle - the windshield became a stove vent in the kitchen, and the wheels, rims, and headlights became windows. One of the fireplaces is wagon wheel hub, and you can walk around the spokes. And actual petroglyphs are embedded in the walls.
Boyce went to the Phoenix Brickyard and got misshapen, reject-bricks for free, as they were considered ugly and useless. He used these bricks to construct much of the castle, and today they're called "architectural accents."
Boyce conserved everything he could, including space, and many of the castle's features serve multiple purposes. For example, most of its roofs are also patios for the next level, and many of the pillars also double as furniture. Many cubby holes, nooks, and crannies are actually odd storage spaces.
Each of the castle's 18 rooms is built on a different level, and one of the living rooms was built around a saguaro cactus, now just a skeleton. Boyce fashioned two chairs, three stools, and a table out of saguaro skeletons that he added to this room.
When Boyce died in 1945, Mary Lou (then 22), and her mother, Frances, moved into the castle. They struggled for a while, two women living alone in the desert, with little money and initially no running water or electricity. Eventually, they realized that people were interested in seeing their home, and began giving tours. Unfortunately, they didn't get enough traffic to generate an income to sustain them. Then Frances decided to contact Life magazine, hoping some publicity might help them sell tours.
The castle was featured in the January, 26, 1948 issue of Life, under the title, "Life Visits a Mystery Castle: A young girl rules over the strange secrets of a fairy-tale dream house built on the Arizona desert." And so the castle's name was born.
Below is the now-famous main picture from the article, with Mary Lou sitting on top of the winding staircase.
Here's a color photo of that same staircase from a different angle, sans Mary Lou:
Boyce hid lots of little surprises in the castle. For example, when a stone was removed from one of the walls, they found $74 worth of nickels and dimes. Precious stones, necklaces, gold nuggets, notes for Mary Lou, and $20 bills were found in other hiding places. But the biggest mystery of all was the trap-door.
There is a room between Mystery Castle's wedding chapel and bar room, ironically named "purgatory." In that room is a trap-door (guarded by the now famous metal alligator), that Boyce stipulated nobody was to open until 1948. Why? Nobody knows - that's another mystery.
The Guardian Dragon / Alligator
On January 1, 1948, with her mother, uncle Frank, and Life magazine reporters and crew watching, Mary Lou opened the trap-door. Inside, she found a box containing a photograph of her father taken a few months before his death, two letters from her father, gold ore, some cash, and a valentine she had sent to him when she was 7.
A note from our Editor, Diane:
"Many sources inaccurately report that Mystery Castle was on the cover of Life magazine. Actually, it was a 5-page feature story (mostly pictures) in Life's January 26th, 1948 issue (the cover was "Resort Fashions"). Pictures on the Net depicting Mystery Castle as a cover story must have been photo-shopped. The actual cover is pictured on the right"
Mary Lou lived in Mystery Castle for 65 years, giving tours until her death on November 3, 2010.
Thanks to the Mystery Castle Foundation, started by Mary Lou, you can still tour the castle for a small fee.
You'll see lots of quirky features in and around the castle and its 18 rooms, including its dungeon and cantina. Some of the furniture was designed by Boyce, some is from abandoned structures, and other pieces are treasures, such as:
From top, left to right: Mary Lou, an interesting way to repair a broken window, one of the shoes in the wedding chapel (it was supposed to be good luck for the bride to leave behind a shoe), a petroglyph, the kitchen, a staircase, the main living room, and a wheel from Boyce's Stutz Bearcat, fashioned into a window.