Boyce Luther Gulley was a green builder. He just didn’t know it. His Mystery Castle, which sits at the base of South Mountain, is a Valley landmark and an unwitting example of organic architecture.
“He had no idea that what he was doing was really worthwhile in today’s society,” says Ann Patterson, an architectural critic and co-author of “Landmark Buildings: Arizona’s Architectural Heritage” (Arizona Highways, $18.95). “He was ahead of his time in recognizing the use of local materials in construction.”
From 1929 to 1945 he built his 18-room, 8,000-square-foot castle out of recycled materials he salvaged from the surrounding desert. One man’s junk became a piece of his floor or a wall accent.
Gulley, who was unemployed, bartered for his building materials — brick, old telegraph poles, abandoned rail from Ash Fork, saguaro skeletons, wagon wheels and rocks. He built the castle on a former mine so the land cost next to nothing. Given the rambling expanse of the castle, it appears as though he had no plan at the outset. He simply continued adding to the structure when inspiration struck.
“He incorporated a lot of Southwestern ideas,” says Reta Dunham, a volunteer who has led tours throough the castle for 25 years. Those ideas — the flagstone floors, stone exterior, glass bricks and decorative tiles — are now found in homes around the Valley.
He had two years of training as an architectural engineer, and added a few practical touches such as a kitchen with eye-level ovens (Gulley was 6 feet 3 inches tall) and a drain in the middle of the room. When the caretaker cleans the kitchen, all he has to do is hose down the floor. There are pull-out beds, benches and easy-to-reach storage areas throughout the castle.
Gulley was a Seattle businessman living with his wife, Frances, and his daughter, Mary Lou, when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1927. He left his family without telling them and resurfaced in Arizona two years later. His whereabouts for 18 years was a mystery, says Mary Lou Gulley, who has lived in the Mystery Castle since inheriting it in 1945.
Back then the castle was isolated and had no electricity or running water. Desert dwellers, including snakes, were accustomed to stopping by. Living in such conditions would have been difficult for anyone, but the Seattle schoolgirl was up to the challenge.
“It was a blast for me,” says Mary Lou Gulley, who is now in her 80s and still lives in the castle with a caretaker. “Girls nowadays are chickens.”
Today the castle has modern comforts. Running water and electricity reached the castle in the 1960s, and her bedroom now has air conditioning.
She once led the tours through her home, which began in 1948 after Life magazine published an article on the castle, but has since turned over those duties to volunteers. Still, if you visit the Mystery Castle you will find her sitting in her living room, eager to answer questions and share the story of her father’s love for her and the desert.
“I love it,” she says. “This was my father’s dream. People thought he was nuts. People who don’t follow their dreams — they’re the nuts.”
Visitors to the castle either love its aesthetic or are baffled by it.
“It’s not ugly at all,” says Patterson. “It’s magical. People should go there and learn from it. This is an individualized expression of one man’s relationship to the desert. We need to do more of that. We don’t need these big glass buildings that are inappropriate for this area.”
What: An 18-room, 8,000-square-foot castle out of recycled materials
When: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays October through June Where: 800 Mineral Road, Phoenix
Cost: $5 adults, $3 children age 5-12
Information: (602) 268-1581