Why you should care
Arizona has cacti galore … but why so many castles?
Why would anyone ever build a castle in the heart of a desert? Turns out, three men — Mort Copenhaver, Alessio Carraro and Boyce Luther Gulley — shared that dream, building magnificent structures over several decades in the untouched, untamed wilderness of the Arizona desert.
“Many folks come to Arizona to reinvent themselves,” says Marshall Shore, a Phoenix-based historian. But these builders also left distinct marks on the landscape. Copenhaver fashioned his mountainside abode after a Moorish castle he saw as a child in a movie; the Mystery Castle was born out of a promise to Gulley’s daughter; and Carraro aspired to create a high-end subdivision, Shore explains.
Their ambitions didn’t work out according to plan, but they all created a legacy — building the castles out of green materials at their disposal, Shore notes — in the structures that outlived them. And all in one day, you can soak in the unusual architecture created by three quirky builders.
The remote Copenhaver Castle, nestled into the south side of Camelback Mountain in Phoenix, is at first glance barely discernible from the surrounding red rocks. With round towers, arched windows and exterior walls built from stone blasted from the mountain, the structure looms like an austere sentinel overlooking a moat. It’s a nod to the Moorish fortress in Spain that inspired Mort Copenhaver, the Phoenix orthodontist who constructed the castle over a 12-year period in the 1970s. Amid total quiet, you might forget you’re just minutes from downtown Phoenix. The pristinely manicured surrounding residential neighborhood is lined with palm trees and cacti, elegant rust-red gates and bright magenta flowers.
From the secure, dark iron castle gate, you have a spectacular panoramic view of Phoenix and the mountains to the northwest.
You can’t visit the castle — it’s now a private residence under construction (which has caused disputes among the neighbors) — but don’t let that stop you from making the steep climb up the street on Camelback Mountain to admire the unusual structure and soak in the vistas. From the secure, dark iron castle gate, you have a spectacular panoramic view of Phoenix and the mountains to the northwest.
The Mystery Castle is a love letter to the 20th-century Western feminist and writer Mary Lou Gulley, built by her father as he convalesced from illness. There’s something wonderfully intricate about the house’s many nooks and crannies, from the musky bottom-floor bar to the wildlife-themed wall decor; from a room of hanging blue jeans to a couch full of cat pillows. Boyce Luther Gulley, a cobbler from Seattle, was diagnosed with tuberculosis in the 1930s, explains Juan Carlo, a tour guide at the Mystery Castle who knew the Gulley family. Told he had six months to live, Gulley spontaneously moved to Phoenix for the drier climate, defied the odds and lived for 15 years. His pastime? Squatting on 40 acres of federal gold and copper mining property while he constructed this castle for Mary Lou, inspired by sandcastles they had built together on the beach in Washington, Juan Carlo says. “Mystery Castle was built using anything and everything,” says Shore. “Rusted shovels became lanterns, wagon wheels became window frames and broken glass adds pops of color.”
Mary Lou and her mother learned about the sprawling home only after Gulley’s death in 1945, and shortly thereafter made the place home. Rumor has it that Gulley left letters and other items stashed in the trap door for his family, Juan Carlo says.
Go There: Mystery Castle
- 800 East Mineral Rd., Phoenix 85042. Map.
- No reservations needed for tours, which operate October to May.
- Tickets: $10 in cash for adults, $5 for children.
Tovrea Castle at Carraro Heights
Tovrea Castle was built in the 1920s by Italian immigrant Alessio Carraro, who had grand ambitions to create a resort hotel. Carraro and his son raced to complete the hotel over just 14 months, finishing in 1930. But the hotel never opened, and Carraro sold the property to local business mogul Edward Ambrose Tovrea, who turned it into a private residence. The city of Phoenix later purchased and renovated the structure, rebuilt the expansive cactus garden and began offering extensive tours. It’s now included in the Phoenix Parks system and designated as one of 33 Phoenix Points of Pride, among the best landmarks and attractions in the city.
Lying within more than 40 acres of preserved desert in the midst of what is now part of metropolitan Phoenix, Tovrea Castle has long been a talking point for the area. Some liken its tiered exterior to an ornate wedding cake. Hopeful visitors must plan ahead — it’s been rumored that tours book up about a year in advance. But if you’re lucky enough to snag a spot, you can experience what Shore describes as “the story of a booming city in the late ’20s.”