Mystery Castle: Here's why the Phoenix landmark was built and what you can see inside

·5 min read

A castle in the desert may seem unexpected, but you'll find one just south of downtown Phoenix.

Situated in the foothills of South Mountain Park and Preserve is the famous Mystery Castle. The structure, built in the 1930s by Boyce Luther Gulley, is made of an odd assortment of building materials including recycled car parts, telephone poles, plow discs, tiles, stones, bricks and metals.

But the Mystery Castle is more than an eclectic structure. It’s a Phoenix Point of Pride, one of 31 landmarks and attractions — along with places such as the Phoenix Zoo, Hole-in-the-Rock at Papago Park and St. Mary’s Basilica — that represent the city’s best features.

Here’s why Mystery Castle was built and other fun facts that make it special.

5 more things to know: Phoenix Mystery Castle is now open

History of the Mystery Castle

The Mystery Castle, at South Mountain Park was built by Boyce Luther Gulley using recycled materials in Phoenix, seen on Nov. 19, 2021.
The Mystery Castle, at South Mountain Park was built by Boyce Luther Gulley using recycled materials in Phoenix, seen on Nov. 19, 2021.

Boyce Luther Gulley came to Arizona from Seattle in 1929 to battle tuberculosis, leaving his family behind. Before antibiotics were created in the 1940s to cure the disease, Arizona’s desert climate was promoted as having restorative health benefits for tuberculosis patients. But Gulley didn't sit still once he got here. He spent the next several years building the Mystery Castle for his daughter Mary Lou.

According to mymysterycastle.com, Gulley got the idea to build the castle from his daughter. The castle’s website says Gulley recalled the two of them building sandcastles on the beach together in Seattle and his daughter was sad when the tide washed them away. Mary Lou said, “Please, Daddy, build me a big and strong castle someday that I can live in.”

So he did.

It wasn’t until Gulley died in 1945, however, that his wife Frances Bradford Gulley and Mary Lou found out about the castle. They eventually moved in and called it home.

Portraits of Mary Lou Gulley, left, her mother, Frances Bradford Gulley, middle, and her father, builder of The Mystery Castle, Boyce Luther Gulley, right, hang in the Mystery Castle at South Mountain Park on Nov. 19, 2021.
Portraits of Mary Lou Gulley, left, her mother, Frances Bradford Gulley, middle, and her father, builder of The Mystery Castle, Boyce Luther Gulley, right, hang in the Mystery Castle at South Mountain Park on Nov. 19, 2021.

According to the castle’s caretaker, Juan Ramon Gastelum Robles, the property became a tourist attraction as early as the 1940s when people randomly came across it.

“This place was open, it's a big open space," Robles said. “People wanted to see what it was and so Mary Lou started giving tours in the 1940s. Then she saw a lot of people coming and then she started giving tours for 25 cents in 1948. With that you could also get a cup of coffee and a donut. Her mother used to hand it out.”

Juan Ramon Gastelum Robles greeting visitors at The Mystery Castle, at South Mountain Park in Phoenix on Nov. 19, 2021.
Juan Ramon Gastelum Robles greeting visitors at The Mystery Castle, at South Mountain Park in Phoenix on Nov. 19, 2021.

The castle caught the attention of Life magazine and on Jan. 26, 1948, the popular national publication ran a story titled, "Life visits a mystery castle: a young girl rules over the strange secrets of a fairy tale house built on the Arizona desert."

Frances died in 1970; Mary Lou continued to give tours to curious visitors from all over the world until she died in 2010.

More: Phoenix police department seeks info after Mystery Castle vandalized

No two rooms look the same

With rooms on multiple levels and different types of decor in each room, it’s not difficult to see how the castle must have been a dream playground for a child, or an adult for that matter.

The Mystery Castle has 18 rooms and 13 fireplaces. One notable stone fireplace on the second floor keeps the living room warm as well as the master bedroom behind it.

Gulley wasn’t an architect by profession, but his ingenuity can be seen in the very walls of the structure.

Seating areas, desks and storage spaces follow the contours of the building and are built out of the walls or built from stone and other recycled materials like wagon wheels and old window panes. The home has a guest space called the Saguaro Room, a kitchen and a courtyard with a wishing well.

Hanging out in the second-floor courtyard but too lazy to go downstairs for a drink? Well, you could wish for one. A fun feature of the wishing well is that you could drop a bucket attached to a rope and it would land exactly at the bar on the ground floor. Then voila, a drink would be sent up to you.

That feature doesn’t function anymore, so don’t get too hopeful if you’re thirsty on the tour. You can, however, buy a Mystery Castle shot glass or pint glass in the gift shop next to the courtyard.

Mystery Castle: This man has lovingly cared for the Phoenix landmark for 42 years

The original furniture and decor are still there

A room inside The Mystery Castle on Nov. 19, 2021, at South Mountain Park built by Boyce Luther Gulley using recycled materials.
A room inside The Mystery Castle on Nov. 19, 2021, at South Mountain Park built by Boyce Luther Gulley using recycled materials.

According to Robles, who has been the caretaker for 42 years, most of the castle’s antiques, artwork and furniture were brought in by Frances and Mary Lou.

Guests on the tour can see paintings of Frida Kahlo; portraits of Mary Lou, Frances and Gulley; leopard- and tiger-printed pillows; beagle posters and paintings; Native American art and woven crafts; rocks with cat faces painted on them; and family memorabilia including photos and framed articles about the Mystery Castle.

Mystery Castle has a wedding chapel

There is a wedding chapel on the ground floor of the castle. The room looks like a cabin in the woods with stone walls, floors with wood finishes and a wood ceiling. The eye-catching fireplace is surrounded by fake flower arrangements, reminiscent of an altar.

The wedding Chaple in The Mystery Castle on Nov. 19, 2021, at South Mountain Park built by Boyce Luther Gulley using recycled materials.
The wedding Chaple in The Mystery Castle on Nov. 19, 2021, at South Mountain Park built by Boyce Luther Gulley using recycled materials.

Robles said the castle has been used for hundreds of wedding ceremonies since it opened to the public. Mary Lou would play the pump organ in the next room for the nuptials.

“Even today, once in a while, there are still ceremonies here,” Robles said. “The last wedding was about seven months ago, really. But it was only the ceremony, not a big wedding. You can even bring your own priest here.”

Stone and tile work are all over the place

While the castle is mostly known for being made of scrap materials like car parts, bricks and stone, there is actually a lot of detail in the architecture. You just need to look closely.

There is intricate stonework on the floors throughout, often with varying colored rocks. Ceramic tile art depicts scenes of people farming and traveling out West. In the middle of the courtyard is a design of a compass on the ground made of tiles and stones.

The Mystery Castle is open for tours

Tours are offered 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays from October through May. Admission is $10, $5 for ages 5-12. Payment is by cash or check only. For more information, call 602-268-1581 or visit mymysterycastle.com.

You can connect with Arizona Republic Culture and Outdoors Reporter Shanti Lerner through email at shanti.lerner@gannett.com or you can also follow her on Twitter.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Mystery Castle in Phoenix: Why is it called that and what's inside?

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