Tovrea Castle at Carraro Heights sits on a hilltop, surrounded by hundreds of carefully-placed and tended cacti, called the "Carraro Cactus Garden." Located in Phoenix on Van Buren street near 51st street, the Castle and Garden lay conveniently between Papago Park and Pueblo Grande Museum and Archaeological Park, two other important historical Phoenix attractions.
The Castle has been a fascinating mystery to Valley residents for decades; until early in 2012, most people could only wonder about what lay behind its' walls. Now, thanks to a partnership between the City of Phoenix and the non-profit Tovrea Carraro Society, you can tour the Castle and its incredible Carraro Cactus Garden.
Restoration and preservation of Tovrea Castle at Carraro Heights is a collaborative project of the Phoenix Historic Preservation Office and the Phoenix Parks and Recreation Department. It was listed on City Historic Property Registry in 1990 and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1996.
Wealthy entrepreneur Alessio Carraro wanted to build an exclusive resort in the middle of the desert, surrounded by acres of dense, vibrant desert vegetation. And eventually, he planned on building a deluxe housing development at the resort's base. So he sold his San Francisco sheet metal business, and moved to Phoenix in 1928. He bought 277 acres of undeveloped desert land with a shack on the outskirts of the city, and began constructing his dream.
Carraro, his son Leo (only 13 or 14 at the time), and a small crew built a grand structure - a cream-colored wedding cake-shaped hotel reminiscent of his homeland, Italy. He hired an obviously talented Russian gardener named M. “Mokta” Moktachev to develop the huge, elaborate cactus garden. Hundreds-of-thousands of river rocks were hauled by truckloads from the nearby Salt River, many of which were hand-painted white and still line the walkways and surround areas of the garden.
Each of the hotel's 3 stories features lighted palisade-style parapet walls. Although there is not actually a turret, Carraro added a lighted, windowed dome crowning his hotel.
Carraro added Art Deco light fixtures throughout the hotel, and hand-stenciled elaborate scrollwork on the ceilings, floors, and columns. Some Italian artisans were in Phoenix working on the Orpheum Theater. Carraro hired them for the interior plaster work, including the unique pulled-plaster ceiling in the basement, and the now famous hand-painted dancer medallion over the fireplace.
Several items were salvaged for the hotel's interior. For example, mahogany teller windows became kitchen cabinets, and a bank vault became the basement's wine cellar, both rescued from Phoenix National Bank during its remodeling. The maple floors came from at least one building that was being demolished in Phoenix.
At Christmas in 1930, Carraro's son Leo dipped hundreds of light bulbs in red, blue, and green paint which he draped around the hotel. He strapped a lighted Christmas Tree to the flagpole on its dome. Leo then entered and won The Arizona Republican newspaper-sponsored Phoenix Spirit of Christmas outdoor-decorating contest. The newspaper referred to the hotel as "a brilliantly lighted castle." The name stuck, and the hotel has been called a "castle" ever since.
Carraro never realized his dream of a resort. In 1931, after living in it for just a year, he sold his castle and land to cattle baron E.A. Tovrea.
Why did Carraro sell his dream? There was a rumor that the castle was really a casino constructed for Al Capone, and that it was his desert hideaway. Nobody seems to know how that rumor originated, but there's no evidence to support it.
Carraro's wife never moved into the castle, refusing to live in what she called "a snake-infested wasteland." Was that a factor for the sale? E.A. Tovrea bought land right next to the castle's property and started constructing sheep and cattle pens to supply his nearby slaughterhouse and meatpacking plant. Obviously, the stench from the animals wouldn't be a pleasant addition to Carraro's luxury resort.
Carraro's granddaughter (Leo's daughter), Marie Cunningham of Phoenix, says that at least part of the reason her grandfather sold the castle was simple economics. The Great Depression was at its worst, the housing market had crashed, and it was just too expensive to keep the property afloat.
Tovrea founded the Arizona Packing Company and Tovrea Packing Company, and opened the still-operating Stockyards Restaurant in 1947. When he bought the Castle for his wife, Della, he renamed it "Tovrea Castle." After about nine months, Tovrea died, leaving Della living there alone.
In 1969, burglars broke into the castle and assaulted Della. She tried to scare them off by firing a pistol through the kitchen's ceiling, but it didn't work. The burglars tied Della up, severely beat her, and she died a couple of months later.
After Della Tovrea's death, the Castle sat empty for decades. Then the City of Phoenix recognized it's historic value to Arizona. Between 1993 and 2003, via several voter-approved bond issues, the City purchased the castle and 44 acres of surrounding land.
Because her grandfather was the one who created the castle in the first place, Marie Cunningham petitioned the City of Phoenix to add her grandfather's name to the historic site. Consequently, Its official name is "Tovrea Castle at Carraro Heights." Alessio Carraro's family is honored by the landmark's new name which recognizes both pioneer families. His grandchildren (Leo's children), Frank Carraro and Marie Cunningham, and Frank's children Kim and Michele Carraro-Smith participated in the restoration, and Marie helps clean the Castle.
Tovrea Castle and Garden During Restoration
In honor of Arizona's 100th Anniversary and the property's historic value to the state, the massive restoration of Tovrea Castle and Carraro Cactus Garden was named a Centennial Legacy Project by the Arizona Centennial Commission.
There's now a new roof, rehabilitated historic windows, restored original exterior stucco, reworked patios and entries, and a completely restored interior. Fire sprinklers and new plumbing, electrical and mechanical systems, and air conditioning were installed. Lead and asbestos were removed. Using photos of the Cactus Garden from the early 1930s, it took 5 years to restore it with more than 5,000 cacti in over 100 varieties, more than 350 saguaro cacti, and 62 trees.
Tovrea Castle After Restoration
Carraro Cactus Garden After Restoration
The pyramid on the grounds is a memorial to E.A. and Della Tovrea. They wanted to be buried in it, but county regulations wouldn't allow it.
Today, the Tovrea Castle and the Carraro Cactus Garden look much the same as when Carraro created them.