Castle Keep

Time is running out to restore Tovrea Castle with its historic grounds intact

It's after midnight when we scramble over the rock wall and onto the grounds of Tovrea Castle. Gravel crunches beneath our feet as we creep over undulating ground and through fragrant creosote toward the glittering edifice on the hill.

Though we are trespassing, there is little trepidation. We mean no harm.

We pass a tiny patch of grass where the castle's creator devised a lawn game, a combination of miniature golf and pocket billiards. There are dry concrete shells of bygone fountains and ponds, a ramshackle aviary, the formidable stands of cacti that gird the building.

The dancer that frolics above the mantel has a twin sister -- at the Orpheum Theatre.
Paolo Vescia
The dancer that frolics above the mantel has a twin sister -- at the Orpheum Theatre.
Distinctive ceiling texture and vaulted passages are features of the basement.
Paolo Vescia
Distinctive ceiling texture and vaulted passages are features of the basement.

We ascend a staircase and are awash in the light cast by rows of bulbs that rim each parapet comprising the castle. We sit on the western patio and gaze out over the city. A sweet southerly breeze rattles the castle's windows and snaps the flag atop the cupola. A cactus wren flutters and calls out, perhaps protesting our intrusion.

The castle is uninhabited. We stroll all around it, in plain sight of any passers-by paying attention. Apparently, nobody is. Autos stream past on the Red Mountain Freeway and Van Buren and Washington streets.

At night, especially, the castle is an island of placidity, a time warp that defies the rasping, hissing city it overlooks. I half expect to glimpse the ghost of the castle's creator, Alessio Carraro.

If we are so inclined, we could easily damage the venerable building. People have. Fires have been started inside. Someone once broke in and turned on a spigot, flooding the place.

Going back over the wall, I land in a clutch of prickly pear -- an annoying revenge for a benign but illicit visitation.

When Alessio Carraro built his castle in 1929, he created one of the most enduring and mysterious edifices Arizona has known. It's certainly among the most peculiar conceived by modern man.

At night, with its crenellated battlements illuminated by rows of white bulbs, the place hovers like a glittering, forbidden palace.

Carraro was an Italian immigrant who made his fortune in the sheet metal business in San Francisco. He sold that enterprise in 1928 and moved to Arizona, where he purchased nearly 300 acres along the unpaved road that connected Phoenix and Tempe. To consummate the land deal, Carraro threw in the 1927 Buick he'd driven to Phoenix.

He oversaw creation of the sprawling cactus garden and then, working without blueprints, built a distinctive elongated octagonal structure, inspired perhaps by a Babylonian ziggurat. He intended it to be a small hotel, the locus of a resort and residential development.

But he was soon squeezed financially by the Depression and aesthetically by the stockyards that encroached from the west. Carraro abruptly sold the property in 1931 to E.A. Tovrea, a swashbuckling cattle baron, and his wife, Della. The Tovreas obtained the 43 acres for $22,133.

The place has been known since as Tovrea Castle. To this day, it provokes curiosity, innuendo and, always, conversation.

Its lore is pregnant. The man hired by Carraro to sculpt his cactus garden was a Russian named Motka -- he is said to have stalked the desert with a hawk perched on his shoulder.

For years, a rumor persisted that a tunnel linked the castle to the State Capitol, some eight miles distant at the other end of Washington Street.

The castle may have contributed to the demise of Carraro's marriage. His wife, Silvia, refused to move from San Francisco. "She didn't think it was dry and beautiful," her son Leo told an interviewer. "She thought it was snake country, and she didn't like snakes."

E.A. Tovrea died shortly after purchasing the castle. But his wife, Della, lived there for nearly 40 years. In 1969, two armed robbers bound and beat her. She would never recover from the injuries.

Through the generations, Phoenicians have recognized the castle's singularity and mystique. We all want a look inside, to tread its rich maple floors, to climb the staircase to look down on the Valley.

Preservation of Tovrea Castle is imperative. It should be a museum and a park, open to the public.

The City of Phoenix agrees -- though not decisively.

Phoenix bought the building and some surrounding property in 1993 and has acquired additional acres since then. It now owns about 18 acres of the 43-acre site.

It's a scandal that the city has not acquired the entire tract.

What's a castle without its kingdom?

In 1989, Phoenix voters overwhelmingly approved a bond issue that specified acquisition of the castle "and surrounding grounds." The ballot measure appropriated $5 million for this purpose.

The city has not fulfilled the voter mandate. Although 11 years have elapsed, the city has not spent all the bond money. The castle has not been restored. Its grounds have not been preserved. The building molders, its exquisite art deco fixtures caked in dust, its architectural flourishes corroding. The plumbing crumbles and the elements punish the stucco exterior. It's a fire trap.

And the risk to the 25 privately owned acres that envelop the castle is acute. Frustrated by the city's inertia, the heirs of E.A. Tovrea have put the land -- zoned for commercial and light industrial development -- on the market. There's an offer on the table from a developer who wants to build an office complex adjacent to the castle.

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