Tucked away in the foothills of Phoenix’ South Mountain Park is a strange castle a man built all by himself out of rocks and scrap materials. It’s call Mystery Castle, and it has quite the interesting and mysterious history.
But before we get into that, I’m going to change gears for a second – if you are, or ever were a fan of the Monkees, you may recognize these words:
“This morning, I went to this house that uh, a man had built all by himself, and I really got hung up on it, ’cause uh, when I was a kid, I, I used to build a lot of things. And I know I’ve got a lot going for me with the music and the show and everything, but, but still uh, someday, I’d, I’d like to make something, something that’ll last. Something important. Something I, I can say is my own.”
Spoken by Micky Dolenz in the final episode of the first season, “Monkees on Tour,” it’s believed he was talking about the Mystery Castle. I visited Phoenix in 1988 and although I wish I could remember how I figured out where “the house a man built by himself” was in those pre-internet days, but alas, I can’t. But I somehow did, and yep, I went. All I have to remember about my visit is two photos (that were on a roll of film I undoubtedly brought to the Photomat store to get developed) and a vague memory of our tour guide. So when Joe and I were planning our trip to the southwest and decided to start in Phoenix, I knew I had to go back.
The house was built by Boyce Luther Gulley, an artist with 2 years of architectural training. He, his wife Fran and daughter Mary Lou lived in Seattle but in 1929, Gulley contracted tuberculosis and abruptly decided to leave his family so they wouldn’t catch the disease. He eventually wound up in Phoenix, where he decided to build a dream house for his daughter. One of his favorite past times with Mary Lou back in Seattle had been to make sand castles on the beach, but she would get upset when the waves would come in and destroy the castles. He decided his last legacy to her would be to build her a castle in the desert – one that could never be washed away (I know, I know…it sounds very dramatic. The story is from Mary Lou, who was quite the character, so who knows for sure. But it sounds good LOL!).
He continued to work on the house for 15 years, using a hodgepodge of native stones, adobe, cement, mortar, calcium, and even goat’s milk. Car parts, glass bottles, rail tracks, ruined bricks and things salvaged from the local dump were all worked into the design of this dream house that has 18 room, 13 fireplaces and takes up 8000 square feet. No blueprints are known to exist and throughout the time he was working on the house, his family only received a few letters from him, but he never told them exactly where he was or what he was doing (Again, I know. I thought the story was a bit odd too, but it’s not ours to judge).
Gully passed away of cancer in 1945 (he was apparently cured of his tuberculosis). At that time, Fran and Mary Lou were notified that he had been building this castle in Phoenix. Upon traveling to Arizona to see it, they decided to relocate and live there, despite the house having no running water or electricity (at the time it was built, Phoenix was much smaller and utilities couldn’t be brought out that far. Water and electric service have since been added). Following being featured in an article in Life magazine in 1948, mother and daughter began doing tours of the castle, and when Fran Gulley passed away, young Mary Lou continued the tradition alone (after seeing photos in the castle during this trip, I realize that the tour guide during my 1988 visit was Mary Lou herself!). Mary Lou passed away in 2010 and since then the house has been kept exactly as is and tours have been run by The Mystery Castle Historical Foundation, a 501(c)(3) organization developed by Mary Lou prior to her passing.
Tours of the Mystery Castle are very limited; currently Thursdays through Sundays from 11am to 3:30pm during the cooler months of the year. Our visit, on Thursday, October 5th, was actually the first day it was open this season. Each tour lasts roughly 30 to 60 minutes, and guests are invited to explore a dozen or more rooms, while hearing the history of how and with what the house was built, interesting artistic features of each room, the Gulleys’ family history, and a bit about Mary Lou’s unique life.
Simply put, I’m thrilled to have gone back to Mystery Castle. There’s a huge difference in my appreciation of art and architecture as a college student in 1988, and now. Whereas back then I had no idea of the creativity and hard work it took to build the house (at the time I was just thrilled to have gone where Micky Dolenz had been said to have once been – yeah, I was a dork back then LOL!), this time I was fascinated with the entire house, the story of the Gulley family and the weird/wacky undertones of both. I’d definitely recommend visiting if you can!
Address: 800 E. Mineral Rd, Phoenix, AZ
Directions: I-10 exit 155. East on Baseline Rd for 5.5 miles. Turn south onto 7th St. for 1.5 miles. At the end of the street, turn left onto Mineral Rd to get to the Castle. Golf courses and gated communities are being built up to the edge of the Mystery Castle desert property.
Hours: October through May, Thursday through Sunday, 11am to 4pm (Call to verify)
Phone: 602) 268-1581
Admission: Adults $10.00, Kids $5.00 (tour is not wheelchair accessible and visitors must be able to walk up and down a number of stairs)
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