But that inaccessibility has protected Castle Hot Springs, keeping the place hanging in limbo since the disastrous fire in 1976 leveled the Palm House, destroying the kitchen and dining facilities as well as guest rooms, and making commercial operation impossible.

After the fire, the hotel was donated to the Arizona State University Foundation, which sold it to an investment group that promptly took it into receivership. It was sold again in the late Eighties, to a couple of brothers who have toyed with the idea of turning it into a boutique resort, but have kept it on the market while they make up their minds.

While real estate agents in Phoenix have grown used to people who assure them they intend to buy and develop Castle Hot Springs, no one has ever been able to come up with the prohibitive amount it would take to bring it up to code.

This year, however, the inquiries are more serious than usual. For the first time, there exists the possibility that Castle Hot Springs is something more than a white elephant with a glorious history.

Part of its unexpected potential has to do with the inevitable march of Phoenix to the north. Given Phoenix's history of leapfrogging development and obvious pleasure in urban sprawl, it is not inconceivable that the suburbs could reach that far.

"It's on a parallel with Cave Creek and Carefree," says Rob Smith of Sierra Club. "It's highly likely that in the next ten years, someone could have a big development out there."
The seeming inevitability of Phoenix's growth to the northwest, as well as the expansion of Lake Pleasant, threatens to compromise Castle Hot Springs' splendid isolation--threatens, in fact, the hotel itself.

While its turn-of-the-century buildings and its place in the history of tourism in Arizona make Castle Hot Springs eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, its owners have deliberately kept it off that listing in order to keep all the options open for prospective buyers--even complete demolition.

The work necessary to make the resort habitable once more--giving it a sewage system, not to mention a way to fight fires more effective than the garden hoses used in 1976--makes saving Castle Hot Springs a labor of love.

Or, given the shape it's in, an act of lunacy.
@body:In its heyday, Castle Hot Springs had some of the feel of an exclusive private club. Guests almost had to be invited to stay there, since everyone knew each other either from business or social ties back east.

The names of the guests were often of the kind that are linked to specific corporations, like the Pews of Sun Oil and the Uihleins of Schlitz Brewing. The Rockefellers had a cottage there, as did the Wrigleys.

Although the visiting rich were friendly to the staff, there were certain social boundaries that could not be crossed. Ena McGuire remembers that the resort's hairdresser was once invited by a smitten male guest to a Saturday-night dance. Management was horrified. "They refused to let her in," she recalls.

The cowboys, though, were another question. In addition to their jobs as wranglers, trail guides and cooks for the pancake breakfasts that were so popular, the cowboys used to stage rodeos at the resort. Many of the single young women did manage to get their favorite cowboys admitted to the dances, and legend has it that at least a few of the married women contrived long trail rides Ö deux with those sturdy sons of the West.

The pleasures of life at Castle Hot Springs were the simple ones. Robert Uihlein liked nothing so much as disappearing into the hills for a week, sleeping on the ground and cooking food over an open fire. And a woman who stayed there in 1959 says her most vivid memory is of a massage, and of the intoxicating scent of orange blossoms in the night.

Ena McGuire remembers the years she spent at the resort as among the happiest of her life. She was young, of course, and she had just married, but she attributes some of that joy to the beauty of the place she lived in.

Even now, at the age of 80, she keeps in contact with former friends from Castle Hot Springs, although she has not worked at the resort since 1948. And when a longtime manager celebrated his 90th birthday, his former employees sent a birthday card around the country, collecting the signatures of guests and staff.

"It broke my heart to leave such a beautiful place," Ena says. Her husband wanted to go into business for himself, so they left.

@body:What is odd about Castle Hot Springs when you look at it now, and you compare it to other resorts built during that golden age of going away on vacation, is how unassuming it looks. The Hotel Colorado in Glenwood Springs, selling a similar package of hot water and scenery, is splendid and imposing. The Hotel del Coronado in San Diego looks like a castle. Even the self-consciously rustic resorts that found favor in the national parks, like El Tovar at the Grand Canyon or the Old Faithful Lodge in Yellowstone, do rustic in a grandiose way.

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