Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Magical Mystery Castle

"Stop."  "Beware of Dog."  "Danger, High Voltage."  There are many signs in our world that simply cannot, and should not, go unheeded.

"Mystery Castle."
This is definitely one of them.

And this one.

This one, not so much...

There are physical signs that we see with our eyes and then there are signs of the more spiritual variety - signs that are less prohibitive and more a call to action.  What action would you take if you came down with tuberculosis?  Well, I guess the answer these days is relatively easy - seek prompt medical attention for an extensive course of antibiotics.  In the 1930's, the answer often involved a major change of scenery, especially for an arid, desert clime.  Diagnosed with TB in the early days of the Depression, Seattle-based Boyce Luther Gulley, saw a sign.  Leaving his wife and daughter behind in their secure, if all too humid, home town, Gulley set out for the breadth and breath offered by Phoenix, AZ.

Mystery Castle - Phoenix, AZ

Left with just his thoughts, a dearth of materials, and the inspiration of the mystical western winds, Gulley decided that his call to the desert was the opportunity to fulfill a promise he made to his daughter; he would build her a castle.  Gulley's castle, is essentially the sister castle to California's Nitt Witt Ridge.  Built of found objects, recycled materials, and a weird cement slurry that included a heaping helping of goat's milk, Gulley's dream castle took many years to build and ended up with eighteen rooms and thirteen fireplaces (a particular point of pride for the tour guides).  Upon its completion, and the owner's death, Gulley's wife and daughter were notified that the home was finally ready for them.

The Mystery Castle gained national fame when it was featured
on The January 26, 1948 cover of Life Magazine.  The article,
entitled "Life Visits a Mystery Castle" actually gave Boyce's
dream manse a name that stuck.  The young woman pictured,
is Mary Lou, the daughter for which Gulley built the home.

Shortly after the Life article's publication, the Mystery Castle was open for daily tours given by Mary Lou who continued the practice until her death in 2010.  The castle continues to operate tours as an official "Phoenix Point of Pride" under the auspices of a trust/non-profit that maintains the facility.

Many of the windows, transoms, and sidelights were
made of glass, refrigerator-storage dishes that Mr.
Gulley was able to buy by the truckload for pennies
 on the dollar.

The kitchen

Operating without modern utilities until the 70's, 80's, and 90's (they were added over time), living in the Mystery Castle required a distinct level of dedication and a strength of character uncommon among most people faced with soaring temperatures and terminal illness.

Filled with artifacts, the Mystery Castle is part tourist attraction, part museum.
Included in the collection is this original suffragette china.  According to our
 tour guide, this service belonged to the wife of Arizona's first governor; she made
 good on her threat to serve every meal on these dishes until women got the vote.

The Gulley's home and its contents are the very spirit of wacky tacky.  As I mentioned, it was the home of a single, "art" loving, desert dweller.  Subsequently no efforts to change, move, or restore have been made, leaving the home exactly the way it looked at the time of her death.  There is almost too much wacky tacky that it distracts from the original structure.

An abundance of life-size dolls inhabit
the rooms of the Mystery Castle.
How does one even accomplish something like this?
Wouldn't you be afraid that at some point it would come to life
 and switch places with you, making you the life-size doll?

A not-so-subtle nod to the provenance of some the castle's
more broken-in furnishings, the House of Joy brothel.

An installation by Mary Lou Gulley.
It is amazing the accomplishments than can be made with a soft-bodied
ballerina doll, a shaky hand, and a permanent marker.

The best times of the tour were those when we caught a glimpse of Boyce Luther Gulley's original concept.  Seeing past the four-foot, chocolate bunny statues and the cat decoupages to the stone mosaics, the Mexican tile, the skylights, the repurposed train tracks, the dumb waiter, the cantilevered, spiral staircase, was the chance to see through Gulley's visionary eyes.  All of these "trash castles" have to built by someone who is equal parts genius and madman; it is that delicate balance that fosters the perfect environment for the finest in wacky tacky. 

It really is a southwest castle!

Amazing tile

At the time of construction, this lookout point on the second floor's patio, was said
 to frame the entirety of the Phoenix skyline.  Today, it captures but a small portion.

A wonderful, wire-wheel window.
Gulley drove his Stutz Bearcat all the way from Seattle to Phoenix and
 used many of the deconstructed vehicle's parts in the castle's construction.

Taking a page from the world-famous Winchester Mystery House,
the Mystery Castle is a mini-labyrinth of staircases, archways,
meandering pathways, and columns.

The chapel contains a Victorian-era organ that is said to
have once belonged to Phoenix's black widow (known
for marrying miners, poisoning them, and then keeping their
fortunes).  The legend surrounding the organ was too much
 for Mary Lou Gulley to resist.  

This was my favorite room.  Traditional, Native American rugs,
primitive stained glass, stone/adobe walls, beamed ceilings,
antique chandelier, and the skeleton of a saguaro cactus (around
which the room was built).

A beautiful round window surrounded by native
stone - another use of the refrigerator dishes.

Mary in "purgatory," the area of the house between the chapel and the cantina.

The coolest part of the tour was the trap door - guarded by a menacing, metal alligator.
Following his instructions, Gulley's wife and daughter waited until exactly two years
 after his 1945 death to brave the alligator.  Upon opening the door, they found two $500
 bills, the deed to the property, gold, and a Valentine's Day card that Mary Lou
 had given to her father when she was a child.

Every door at the Mystery Castle is like the famed trap door; there is a surprise and a treasure behind each one.  If you're ever in Phoenix, be sure to follow the sign and pay your respects to this living example of folk/outsider art, vernacular architecture, and human ingenuity.  What began as one man's sickbed promise tuned into a wacky tacky wonder for all to enjoy.

Mystery Castle
800 E Mystery Castle
Phoenix, AZ

*Tours are offered Thursday through Sunday at a cost of $10 per person.


Mr. Tiny


  1. I've been meaning to go here for years. Looks way cool! Have you been to Forestiere Gardens in Fresno? Also, your wacky tacky tourist license is not complete until you've been to the House On The Rock outside of Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin--it's the grandest PCP LSD trip of all, never to be equalled by anything else in the USA. --Deke

    1. Thanks Deke! It is definitely worth a visit the next time that you're in the Phoenix area. I'm just getting going on my wacky tacky travel merit badges, but House on the Rock is definitely on the itinerary.

  2. Great post and as always, great pictures Mr. Tiny! There used to be a castle out on the old Box Canyon Road, which twists and turns from the valley up to Santa Susanna Pass. If you are in that area, you can also visit the ruins (and Manson caves)of Charlies old hideout, the Spahn Ranch. After that, travel down to most western point of Simi Valley and take in the remains of Corriganville (Also known as Hope Town from when Bob Hope owned the property), now public park. There you will find a virtual treasure trove of old Hollywood movies sets; fake caves, well ridden stage coach trails and the fake pond (complete with fake waterfall)where many a Tarzan movie was made. If you can find the entrance of the train tunnel, you make recognize it from some old Abbot and Costello movies as well. If you haven't done this little tour, I would highly recommend it! A little bit of personal history, back in the early days (mid 70's) we used to ride our skateboards in the Tarzan pond, recklessly riding up the face of the waterfall, as it was the steepest wall. Homemade wood boards, barefoot and using surf wax for grip. Good memories! http://www.corriganville.net/

    1. Yahoo!!! That sounds like fun. Fortunately we were able to visit Coriganville a few months ago:


      Please keep the suggestions coming, we are always up for new adventures!!!

  3. So much to look at! Love the story behind the trap door and how he incorporated such a variety of items into the construction. The life size dolls do kinda give me a case of the heebie-jeebies though... I really am going to have to make it to Arizona one of these days!

    1. I'll just say it, those dolls are GROSS!!! The cakey, pink, puffy face...yech. Nevertheless, the Mystery Castle was really cool ad definitely worth a visit. I'm ready to go back and check out even more of AZ!

  4. L-O-VE weirdo, strangeo roadside attractions of homemade "castles". LOVE THEM. How neat is this one, too?! The Native American black and white rug from that one photo is killing me...GORGEOUS!

    1. That's what I love about them; they usually are all weird and creepy but then you focus and see all the really awesome, collectible stuff that resides inside. It's a good thing that I don't have a stealing bone in my body, otherwise I would have come home with plenty of "souvenirs."

  5. LIFESIZED BROTHEL DOLLS!?!? WHere does one get those?

    1. I think with a few pairs of pantyhose, some cotton batting, and a corset, you could have your very own doll. Definitely a home craft project if ever I saw one!

  6. I visited the Mystery Castle as a kid and remember the life-sized dolls...such an oddball place and definitely wacky tacky!

    1. We saw so many wonderful, wacky tacky things in Phoenix that i was almost ready to move there...almost. Keep checking back, I still have four or five more AZ posts!!!

  7. what a cool place! i love the dish windows.

    1. Aren't they neat?! So much better than your run of the mill glass block!

  8. Wow! What a curious place! You see, this is why I love America - all sorts of crazy things everywhere! :) Such a sweet story, and amazing that his daughter was still giving tours up until her death. Thanks for sharing - I hope to visit here someday!

    1. Me too! America is C-R-A-Z-Y (in every way possible)!!! I wish I could take five years and just go explore all of our natural crazy deposits!

  9. I must go to the Mystery Castle & Nitt Witt Ridge! How amazing. I too find these “trash castles” and their eccentric creators to be so interesting and inspiring.

    p.s: Your fear of the life size doll coming to life and switching places with the human owner is hilarious, and reminds me of a Tales from the Crypt episode.

    p.s.s: I love Mary’s outfit!

    1. Thanks!!! You must go to both; neither one is all that far away and both are great! I have always been too chicken to watch Tales from the Crypt; the crypt keeper scared me before the show even started! Hahahahaha!!!