And You Thought Zoners Were Funky . . . Check Out Phoenix’s Mystery Castle [Summer Travel 2018]

Photo by Matt Coker

During a visit with family in Arizona, my grown son talked us into checking out Mystery Castle (800 E. Mineral Rd., Phoenix, Arizona; www.mysterycastle.com), located in the hills overlooking Phoenix International Airport. I had been going to the Valley of the Sun to see my aunt, uncle and cousins since I was a wee one, and I figured I knew all the area attractions, but I had never heard of the Mystery Castle until my son mentioned it.

Pulling up, I could see the structure belonged next to the dictionary definition for funky, but funkier still was the way the odd-looking place came to be, as our guide recounted during our welcome on the front steps.

In the late 1920s, Boyce Luther Gulley sat his daughter Mary Lou on his lap in their Seattle home and told her he would one day build her a castle. But when the girl was 5, her dad left without a word.

In 1945, when Mary Lou Gulley was 22, she received a letter her father had written from his deathbed, telling her he had fulfilled his promise to build her a castle. What had happened in the years between actually began in Seattle, where Mr. Gulley had been diagnosed with tuberculosis. He vanished rather than put his family through a death march. Gulley wandered around for about a year before settling in Arizona, which was where many people with breathing problems wound up in those days.

The desert air allowed him to live another 14 years so he could build his daughter’s dream castle on a 40-acre dump site 10 miles outside Phoenix. After he passed, Mary Lou and her mother arrived to claim her inheritance. They found an 8,000-square-foot structure made from random stones, wood, rope, metal and anything else dragged from the dump. There were 18 rooms and 13 fireplaces, but no electricity or running water even though it had been wired and piped.

Yet, the building had been brilliantly positioned to capture enough moving air and natural light to make it livable, even in the unrelenting Arizona sun. We went inside on a warm day, and it felt as if an air conditioner were running.

The builder’s daughter learned the greatest mystery about the Mystery Castle was not what she could see, but what she could not see. If she pulled out one of the loose stones in the wall, spilling out would be coins, bills, gems, necklaces or even gold nuggets. Her father left instructions that she not open a certain trap door until New Year’s Day, 1948. She waited it out and was rewarded with gold ore, two $500 bills, a valentine, two letters and a photograph of her father that was taken a few months before he died.

Before Mary Lou Gulley’s own death on Nov. 3, 2010, she arranged to have what had been whittled down to a 7-acre property taken over by a nonprofit foundation that would allow her to spend her final days there and maintain it as a tourist attraction in perpetuity.

She had maintained her pop’s eccentric streak by not only maintaining his “vision,” but also enhancing it with so much bric-a-brac that you’d be forgiven for assuming you were inside a giant flea market snow globe that someone had shaken up. There’s all manner of flags, lamps, tables, dolls, sculptures, stones, plates, pillows, paintings, decorations, hanging hats, handkerchiefs, strings of lights, Native American weavings and non-matching furniture, including pieces donated by Frank Lloyd Wright and Barry Goldwater. A wooden rocking chair backrest is covered in a gray T-shirt with the message, “Frank Lloyd Wright was not always right.”

Photo and design by Richie Beckman

Framed photos of Ms. Gulley and her father are in one room while others display a Pancho Villa wanted poster and a picture of Groucho Marx chomping on a cigar. Actual petroglyphs are embedded in walls. Recurring themes throughout are bones, boozing, and displays of the late proprietress’ love of John Wayne and Ronald Reagan.

It’s also unusual outside, where a metal sign informs you are standing at a bunny crossing. A teepee made of stone has a statue of a white wolf inside. A Jan. 26, 1948, Life magazine article identified the teepee as the dog house for Ms. Gulley’s collie. Many of the building’s round windows are filled on the exterior side with old wooden wagon wheels or rusty metal spokes.

The Mystery Castle is not a full-day destination, and there is nothing much else to do out that way unless you love the same type of strip malls that dot Orange County. But I’d dare say you’ll be thoroughly entertained and, yes, mystified for at least a few hours before you meet up again with your Zoner relations.

Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the paper’s first calendar editor. He went on to be managing editor, executive editor and is now senior staff writer.

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