The Phoenix Mystery Castle

One man’s junk is another man’s castle | By Paul Morris

Tucked away in the South Mountain foothills is an odd stone building known as the Mystery Castle. Built in the 1930s by Boyce Gulley, the 18-room, three-story structure is a pile of large desert rocks, ragged wooden beams, and an array of metal, glass, and found objects. He did a good job engineering the house because it seems as sturdy as I imagine it was the day he finished it in the 1940s.

The castle’s story is an odd one. Gulley, a Seattle resident, was told he was dying of tuberculosis. He then made the impetuous decision to move to Arizona—an area famous for providing soothing dry air and mild climates for TB patients. So off he went. However, he forgot to tell his wife and young daughter, Mary Lou, where he was going. They knew nothing of his whereabouts until 1945 when an attorney contacted them with the news that Gulley had died and they were now the owners of his property, including his hand-built home, in Phoenix.

Mary Lou and her mother set off to find their inheritance and liked what they saw, making the unusual abode their home for the rest of their lives. Mary Lou began to give tours of the home and offered it as a venue for weddings over the next 50 years. Living without running water and electricity, the two Gulleys made a modest life here. Life Magazine wrote a story about the home, dubbing it “the Mystery Castle.”

I recall visiting here and meeting Mary Lou for a tour. She was friendly and had stories about many of the objects built into the home. Pointing to an antique golf club over a fireplace, she said it belonged to President Eisenhower from one of his vacation trips to the area. (It’s true that Eisenhower loved golf and did visit South Phoenix from time to time.) On the rooftop patio, she pointed out a wooden wishing well. Her father designed it so you could open the well’s lid, look down to the bar, and shout down your order for another round of drinks.

Mary Lou told us that the house was her father’s gift to her, an apology of sorts for his mysterious departure and their time spent apart. It was a magical castle for his beloved daughter, something straight out of the fairy tales they had read together in her childhood.

She walked us around and took great pride in presenting her father’s architecture. (Her bedroom was off limits, but the tour showcased just about everything else.) Mary Lou passed away in 2010 and her home is now in the National Register of Historic Places and on the Phoenix Points of Pride list.

Tours are still offered Thursday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Reservations are not necessary. Admission is $10 for adults and $5 for children ages 5–12.