Researching one castle in Phoenix, Arizona, led to the discovery of another castle, which led to another. How many castles can one city in the American desert have? At least four, and all with interesting stories behind them.
1. MYSTERY CASTLE
Boyce Luther Gulley of Seattle enjoyed building sand castles with his young daughter Mary Lou. He told her that someday, he’d build her a real castle. In 1929, when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, Gulley didn’t tell his wife Frances about his illness, but left home for Arizona as so many TB patients did. He led Frances to believe he had left to pursue a dream of becoming an artist. What he really did was build the castle he promised Mary Lou. Gulley spent 15 years constructing his castle on 40 acres near Phoenix, using recycled and found objects as construction material and junk to make it interesting. In 1945, as Gulley was near death from cancer, he wrote his wife and daughter about the castle and revealed that he had left them all those years ago not because he wanted to be an artist, but because he wanted to protect them from his tuberculosis. He died before they arrived in Phoenix.
Mary Lou Gulley was 22 when she moved into the castle with her mother, and soon after they began giving tours of their home. Mary Lou continued to do so until her death in 2010. The Mystery Castle has 18 rooms (all built on different levels), 13 fireplaces, winding staircases, arches, and peculiar ornamentation. It is built of native stone, and is said to be held together by a mortar made of cement, calcium, and goat milk. It is open for tours Thursday through Sunday from October through May.
2. TOVREA CASTLE
Tovrea Castle at Carrero Heights in Phoenix is also called the “wedding cake house” because its diminishing stories give it the appearance of a layered wedding cake. It was built by Italian immigrant Alessio Carraro as a hotel for his planned desert resort. Construction was completed in 1930, but there were problems. The stock market crash in 1929 not only forced Carraro to cut back on some of his extravagant plans, it also cut into tourism. And then there was the nearby stockyard owned by E.A. Tovrea. Carraro knew the stockyard would repel visitors, so he hoped to buy the land between his hotel and the stockyard. Tovrea managed to buy it instead, and put livestock corrals on it.
Carraro gave up on his resort, and put the castle on the market in 1931. It was purchased by an anonymous buyer who turned out to be Carraro’s nemesis, E.A. Tovrea, the owner of the stockyard. He'd bought the home for his wife, Delia.
E.A. passed away a few months later. Delia lived in the house until 1969, when she was beaten by intruders and died of her injuries a couple of months later. The castle remained empty for decades until the city of Phoenix bought it in 1993. Tovres Castle is open for tours on a limited schedule, and reservations are recommended.
3. EL CID CASTLE
When he was moving to California in 1948, Dr. Kenneth Hall’s car broke down in Arizona. But rather than go on to his original destination, he decided to put down roots in Phoenix's Sunnyslope neighborhood. There, he opened his own hospital in 1955, which had a private primate zoo on the grounds. In 1963, he began construction on a 65,000 square foot bowling alley, which was designed to resemble a Moorish castle. He called it El Cid.
The building took 17 years to complete, and before it could open Hall’s medical practice began falling apart. A baboon escaped from the zoo in 1967, and police were summoned to shoot the animal. Then, after four patients died during gastric bypass surgery, Hall's medical license was revoked in 1971. He pled guilty to charges of diverting Medicare funds in 1974.
The El Cid bowling alley finally opened in 1981, but it closed just a year later. Hall sold the building to pay a malpractice claim, and the castle was sold and resold, used as a furniture store, church, and most notably, a sports complex for several years. The Castle Sports Club, as it was known then, provided room for roller skating, boxing, volleyball, hockey, and other activities. Building code violations forced the facility to close in 2010, and in 2014, the building was purchased by Arizona’s Department of Economic Security. The state has remodeled El Cid to the extent that it no longer resembles a castle.
4. COPENHAVER CASTLE
Copenhaver Castle on Red Rock Road in Phoenix is also called Camelback Castle, because it was built on the south side of Camelback Mountain. Dr. Mort Copenhaver, an orthodontist, bought the property in 1967 and spent more than a decade building his castle. The 7000-square-foot house was inspired by a Spanish fortress Copenhaver had seen in a movie; the castle has 20 rooms, including five bedrooms and 7.5 bathrooms. There are four fireplaces, a waterfall over the fireplace in the main living room, three garages, ten balconies, and a billiard room. More traditional castle features include a drawbridge, moat, dungeon, and secret passageways.
Copenhaver tried to sell the castle in 1985, but there were no takers; he eventually lost it in bankruptcy proceedings. Jerry Mitchell bought the castle in 1989 for less than a million dollars and began to call it Camelback Castle. He battled bankruptcy as well, and put the castle on the market again for $10 million in 2004, but with no buyers, the price dropped over the years while the castle stood empty. In 2012, Robert Pazderka bought it for $1.45 million; he said he planned to remodel the castle.