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State Press Places: The mysterious castle looming over Phoenix

'An amazing man-made monument to enduring love'


Graphic published Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018.

Built with scavenged materials strewn about the Arizona Desert, an 18-room, 8,000 square foot mansion looms over the valley from South Mountain. Known as the "Mystery Castle," this Phoenix Point of Pride offers tours from October through May and welcomes anyone seeking to admire an architectural wonder of the Arizona. After mysteriously deserting his wife and child in the early to mid twentieth century, Boyce Luther Gulley migrated to Phoenix and, throughout the remainder of his life, dedicated his time to building the castle for his daughter.

What started as a passion project and is now a popular tourist attraction for valley sightseers, the Mystery Castle allows us a glimpse into Arizona's past, a story of one father's love for his child, and serves as an example of sustainable living. The Mystery Castle foundation, the nonprofit organization created by Gulley's daughter, Mary Lou Gulley, continues to oversee and maintain the property even after her death in 2010.

Alfred Varela: If you’ve ever wanted the opportunity to take a tour of an architectural marvel that serves as a beacon for aspirations of sustainable living, an ASU student must not look further than the Mystery Castle.  

Situated just around the base of South Mountain, Mystery Castle is a self-constructed mansion, inspired by one father’s hopes to build his daughter a castle that wouldn’t wash away with the tide. 

Linda Spears: The Mystery Castle is a building at the base of South Mountain, and it was built in the early '30s. Boyce Gulley, who had lived in Seattle with his wife and daughter, Mary Lou, suddenly disappeared one day. As it turns out, he had come to the desert. He suffered from Tuberculosis, so he came to the desert. When Mary Lou was a child when they were living in Seattle, they would build sandcastles together at the beach, and the tide would come in and wash away the castles.  Mary Lou told her father, “Someday, I would like you to build me a castle that doesn’t wash away.” She said, “Maybe in the desert where it doesn’t rain would be a good idea.”  

My name is Linda Spears and I serve on the board of Directors as Vice President of the Mystery Castle Foundation. 

Alfred Varela: So where does the story go from there? What does Boyce Gulley do once he flees his home in Seattle and unbeknownst to his family, lives out the rest of his days in the Arizona desert? 

Linda Spears: Boyce comes to Arizona for his health. He ends up getting a piece of property at the base of South Mountain and then starts building this castle. He had some training in design engineering, but basically was self-taught. He used Native American techniques in his building. For instance, he made concrete with the dirt and water, and he actually added goat’s milk to it to make it smooth. So over the course of probably 15-18 years he built this castle, mainly from reclaimed natural materials. He built it into the natural terrain of the mountain so there are several elevation changes. He didn’t excavate to make it what would be normal – the way we would build today. He used found objects. Some of the windows are made with Depression-era refrigerator glass boxes, and so it’s just an interesting architectural design.  

Then in 1945, Mary Lou and her mother received a letter from an attorney that he had died. So they ended up coming to Arizona, and he of course had left the castle to his daughter, so they came to Arizona to take over the castle. They then lived there with no electricity, no running water, no plumbing. It’s very rustic living, and they had to adapt to what it was like to live in the desert with bandits. You know this is when Phoenix was still a rough and tough kind of town.  

In the early '50s they were running out of money. They decided that they would open the castle up for tours. That's how the story has been maintained. Mary Lou conducted the tours until her death in 2010. The caretaker for the property, who worked for Mary Lou forever, now is in charge of directing the tours and keeping the legend alive. It was her wish that the castle be maintained and be left open for the public to know the story, so prior to her death she created the foundation. Then upon her passing the foundation then assumed ownership of the property. The tours actually provide the revenue to keep the castle open, and so the operation and maintenance is provided from the tour revenue. 

Alfred Varela: So if you’re an ASU student, wanting to get a glimpse of this historical landmark and the work of one father’s till-death project for his daughter, the Mystery Castle welcomes anyone a chance to tour the 8,000 square foot, 18-room mansion. If you’re still not convinced, allow Linda to expound upon the value the Castle provides, and why it's certainly worth the drive. 

Linda Spears: You know, we talk about sustainability a lot, and I think that the castle provides a really good example of how to build sustainably, how to live sustainably, how to be part of your environment without changing that environment. We have about 7,000 a year who visit the castle on an annual basis. Many of them come back, many of them are multigenerational. So people who came to the castle whose kids are now bringing their grandchildren there. So I think it’s just a good story that you can learn about Arizona’s past and just kind of the flavor of what it was like in the wild west, but I think the sustainability aspect is probably what would be most interesting to ASU students.  

Alfred Varela: For the State Press, I’m Alfred Varela. 

Previous episodes:

State Press Places: A class for goat lovers and yoga enthusiasts

State Press Places: Unconventional relaxation found at a cat lounge

State Press Places: The experimental eco-city tucked away in the Arizona desert

State Press Places: Simply Smashing offers "recreational destruction"

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