Unfolding the Map
A mysterious castle lies in Phoenix, its story almost good enough for a William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) book. If only he'd known. But you, Littourati, will get the story from me. Click on the thumbnail of the map at right to place Phoenix on your mental and physical map of Blue Highways.
"By last light, I came into the city named after the bird forever reborn from the ashes of what it has been."
Blue Highways: Part 4, Chapter 14
As I mentioned in the last post, I have visited Phoenix once (if you don't count pass-throughs in the airport). I have to say that I don't remember much of Phoenix. My wife and I drove to Phoenix to visit a friend who lived there at the time. We went to an Ethiopian restaurant, which was fun because in Albuquerque, we don't have Ethiopian food. Otherwise, nothing really stands out for me there.
But there was one thing that I remember pretty vividly about Phoenix. If you know me, you know that I am very interested in things that are off the beaten path or even weird and strange. Somehow, I found out about the Mystery Castle, and that's what remains first in my memory of Phoenix. Otherwise, the only other thing I remember about Phoenix was that it was hot and that it is a sprawling place in the desert. My wife, who doesn't usually hold back on her opinions, thought that Phoenix is a lot like Los Angeles but not as interesting. I withhold my opinion on that, because until about seven years ago I had never been to LA and thought there was no reason to go there - just like a typical Northern Californian. And, having experienced Houston - a city that's big and sprawling and yet has a lot of wonderful things to find if one is willing to search - I know that gems can be found anywhere.
But the Mystery Castle was a fascinating place with a fascinating story. In fact, it was such a fascinating story that I'm surprised it didn't catch the attention of LHM, who seems intrigued when he runs across interesting stories and interesting people to go with them.
What little girl doesn't want to be a princess with her own castle at some point in her life? The Mystery Castle story begins with a man, Boyce Luther Gulley, who left his wife and little daughter, Mary Lou, in Seattle, never to return. It's not a very good beginning to a princess story, but hold on.
Gulley moved to Phoenix because he was harboring a terrible secret. He had tuberculosis, and he wasn't expected to live long. One of his favorite pasttimes with Mary Lou was to make sand castles on the beach, but when the waves came in and destroyed the castles she was always disappointed. He decided that his last legacy to her would be to build her a castle in the desert that could never be washed away.
Gulley found a piece of land under Phoenix' South Mountain, ostensibly to revive an old copper-mining claim. But he began to build his castle stone by stone, brick by hand-made brick. Since the land was near the city dump, he found metals and other materials that he recycled and used in the building of the castle.
Fifteen years after he left his family, and a lot longer than he expected to live, Gulley died. By then, his castle had grown to five floors. A telegram notified Mary Lou that she had inherited a house in Phoenix. Then, she received a last letter from her father in the mail where he informed her of a "home" that he had built her. She went to Phoenix with her mother, and soon after saw her castle rising out of the desert.
Mary Lou lived until November, 2010. Not long after taking possession of the castle, she began to give tours of the place and told her story to curious tourists. Life Magazine did a full article on her in the 1950s, painting her as a veritable princess in the desert. It was that article that coined the name Mystery Castle.
But living in the castle was just the beginning of the mystery. Her father had left little things for Mary Lou to find. A loose stone, when pulled out, led to a cascade of nickels and dimes amounting to $74 pouring out of the hole. There were other niches with surprises like gold nuggets. A note from her father told Mary Lou of a trap door that she should not open until 1948. On New Years Day, 1948 the old lock from a Mexican jail was pried off and she opened the trap door to reveal a photo of her father, a valentine card she had sent him when she was seven, some gold ore and two $500 bills.
When we visited, Mary Lou was still alive. The tour was given by a hired docent, but Mary Lou still held court, so to speak, in her living room and answered questions. Though elderly, she seemed to lose her years as she spoke of the castle, her father, and its secrets. She believed that it still held some more surprises in out of the way places.
Since Mary Lou's death, the fate of the castle remains unknown. Possession of the castle may be taken by the State of Arizona. It is listed on the Phoenix Historic Property Register and has been named a Phoenix Point of Pride. In the meantime, tours there continue and revenue collected from visitors on tour and in the gift shop help maintain the building.
If you want to see the Mystery Castle, you must get yourself to 800 East Mineral Rd in Phoenix, Arizona. The phone number is (602) 268-1581. It's well worth a trip, though the description of "castle" is a little over-the-top (don't lead your kids to believe it is like a fairy castle). It just goes to show that for some girls, dreams of being a princess can come true. Furthermore, the story of Boyce Luther Gulley and his creation arising out of the junk and earth of a city named for a bird forever resurrecting itself is extremely fitting. Above all, it demonstrates a father's love for the girl he left behind, but never forgot.
The story of Mary Lou Gulley is a story about unexpectedly becoming a princess, or at least being perceived as one. However, the story is bittersweet as her ascension to royalty was due to the death of a man who loved her enough to build her a castle. It makes me think of the poignant and haunting Crosby, Stills and Nash song Guinnevere. Guinevere became a princess too, and experienced the joy of possessing lands, riches and fame and had a husband who loved her. She also experienced the pain of finding that her true love was someone else, and this discovery meant pain and misery for many around her, and the destruction of the utopian happiness that was King Arthur's Camelot. For every dream realized, and for every love gained, there is some sort of price to be paid.
If you want to know more about Phoenix
Arizona Republic (newspaper)
Arizona State University
Chow Bella (food blog)
Phoenix New Times (alternative newspaper)
Read Phoenix (list of Phoenix blogs)
Next up: Payson, Arizona