CASTLE HOT SPRINGS
Ena McGuire remembers the morning after the main building at Castle Hot Springs burned to the ground. The fire took place in December 1976, only days before the resort was to open for the season. Ena McGuire delivered the mail up and down the road the hotel was located on.
"I just could hardly bear to go out there," she says. "I had to go there the next day with the mail. When I went over that hill, I thought, 'I don't know if I want to see this or not.'"
Starting in 1936, Ena had worked at Castle Hot Springs, first as a postmistress and then in the gift shop, and later as a waitress. She and her husband were the caretakers during the summer, when the resort's isolation allowed them to skinny dip in the famous pools, and to walk around, literally, as naked as Adam and Eve.
"It was just like living in an Eden of some kind," Ena says.
Opened in 1896, Castle Hot Springs was the first resort in the state of Arizona and one of the most beloved. Located 50 or so miles northwest of Phoenix in the flood plain of Castle Creek, the resort's cluster of turn-of-the-century buildings and hundreds of swaying palm trees look like a mirage in the desert to the unprepared traveler.
The hotel has been unoccupied for more than a decade, and its interiors have been left to bugs and bats and cluttered with junk. But Castle Hot Springs, neglected all these years, has suddenly become an attractive investment, largely because of its proximity to Lake Pleasant, a scant dozen miles away. The completion of the new Waddell Dam has enlarged what had been a small body of water to a 10,000-acre lake with a 125-mile shoreline. A new boat ramp, new roads, an improved marina and a second marina in the works--there are even plans for a lakeside hotel--have meant a jump in the number of visitors to the regional park. The Maricopa County Recreation Services Department expected a million people at Lake Pleasant this year, but that seems to have been a conservative estimate. And the number can only increase. Already, traffic on the road running past Castle Hot Springs has increased, compromising the isolation that was always the key to its charm. More and more people have been stumbling upon the old hotel that, from the outside, at least, looks as if it could open tomorrow. Its grass is green, its bougainvillea pink, its buildings a cheerful yellow.
The old hotel came into existence because of a quirk of nature: From the hillside above it, 120-degree water gushes out of the ground at the exuberant rate of 400,000 gallons a day. The Apaches living in the area had long known about the springs, which they considered medicinal and possibly sacred. Once the Apaches had been encouraged to leave, white settlers took to the waters with the same enthusiasm. In the late 19th century, people had not yet been convinced that tuberculosis came from a bacillus, rather than damp nights or being a poet. For a number of years, "lungers" had been flocking hopefully to the Southwest for the nice fresh air and sunshine. The sick pitched tents around the Castle Creek springs, then someone was inspired to open a boarding house, and soon after, a couple of men with a nose for business trends started a hotel.
The resort at Castle Hot Springs was a stroke of brilliance, a harbinger of things to come and a critical factor in the development of tourism in Arizona. It proved that, properly packaged, you could sell nothing more complicated than scenery. And it demonstrated how little you needed to attract the very rich. When the social season slowed down back in New York or Philadelphia, society folks would spend a month or two at the springs playing tennis, riding horses and smelling the orange blossoms. Before it closed after the 1976 fire, Castle Hot Springs had the distinction of being open and successful for more than three-quarters of a century.
During those winter months, when the guests from the east arrived for their extended vacations, Ena McGuire worked in the dining room at Castle Hot Springs. She served fresh fish flown in from Washington, and fresh vegetables from the resort's garden. "We used to be awestruck because of all the fine clothes," she remembers. "They came to the cocktail parties dressed to the nines."
Ena cherishes the memory of the resort, and is grateful for the social graces and the taste for good food that rubbing shoulders with such guests instilled in a girl from Morristown. She especially remembers the Bell family, whose head was the vice president of General Mills, and how nice they were to her.
People will say there was never another place like Castle Hot Springs, and perhaps there wasn't. While it offered the sorts of things guest ranches have always specialized in, its attraction was not its bustle but its quiet.
"It was so serene, so quiet, all you heard were the birds singing," remembers Ena. So quiet was it, in fact, that young Jack Kennedy fled the premises for the bright lights of Phoenix after he'd been sent to the resort in 1945 to recuperate from his war wounds. Castle Hot Springs was, by great fortune, almost completely inaccessible. While they may have crossed the country in plush, private railroad cars, guests visiting the hotel were forced to bounce over 23 miles of dirt road from Morristown on the final leg of their trip. In the early days, the journey was in stages drawn by horses who sometimes ran away. Even in the Seventies, when the resort could be reached from SR 74, the trip entailed crossing the creek several times and the ever-present possibility of getting completely lost.
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 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.
But the buildings at Castle Hot Springs are disappointingly nondescript. Yellow clapboard, they date from the 1890s to the 1920s, and are a generic bungalow style that manages to leave you with the impression there ought to be an ocean somewhere nearby.
Even on the inside, the decor looked rugged, almost bare. "It was sparsely furnished, with no clutter," says Kent Boese, who has just received his master's degree from the school of design at Arizona State University. The hotel, he explains, was decorated in the Arts and Crafts style being preached in the first decades of this century by Gustav Stickley. The hotel's interior ran toward Mission furniture with occasional pieces of wicker. Navajo rugs covered the floors and were draped over banisters and the backs of chairs--Stickley especially recommended decorating with Navajo rugs, since usefulness was important in the Arts and Crafts look.
A furniture designer and publisher of the influential Craftsman magazine, Stickley had a love of American Indian craftwork that was in tune with the tenor of the times. The end of the 19th century was a time of great collecting by the Bureau of American Ethnology, which sent anthropologists out to gather up Native American artifacts. The time also saw the founding of the great museums, which displayed what the anthropologists collected. So while old photos of Castle Hot Springs show a place that looks simple, almost Spartan, "It was an elitist style," Boese says. The decor represented inconspicuous consumption. The very rich positively enjoyed roughing it. Malcolm Hirsh, who owned the place in the late Sixties and early Seventies, remembers the time he had workmen install a new light fixture for Richard Deupree. Until that time, the chairman of the board of Procter and Gamble had been using a bare light bulb on a cord.
"It wasn't ten minutes before he called me up and said, 'Malcolm, if I don't get my light bulb back, I'm leaving,'" Hirsh says.
@body:At the time of the fire, Castle Hot Springs was owned by Franz and Mae Sue Talley, who also owned the Arizona Biltmore. Lost in the blaze was a great deal of the furniture, weavings, dishes and linens that made the resort so distinctive. Luckily, Mae Sue Talley had removed some of the Navajo rugs from the hotel before the fire. After the blaze, and after she discovered what it would cost to restore the Palm House, she donated Castle Hot Springs to the Arizona State University Foundation, on whose board she sits. Soon after, she donated the rugs, as well.
An exhibition at the Arizona State University art museum, on view through July 10, gives the public a chance to view the rugs, and to get an idea of how they were originally used. The Castle Hot Springs rugs were working rugs, not pieces of art hung on walls demanding that their craftsmanship be admired. They were on the floor of the dining room, and have coffee stains to prove it. They were even used as saddle blankets, and the durability of Navajo weaving is evidenced by how new the rugs still look, once years of horse sweat were removed.
"Middle grade, honest, earnest rugs," is how Ann Hedlund, a Navajo rug authority at ASU, describes them. Some of them were pretty quickly--one might even say carelessly--woven, so that a diamond design might start looking flattened and squashed as the weaver found herself running out of rug before she ran out of design. A period photo in a display case pictures guests on the front lawn, with Navajo rugs flung over the porch railing behind them. A tableau shows what the interior decor would have looked like: A couple of pieces of Mission furniture, a western painting and group of old saddle blankets evoke chilly winter evenings at the resort. Curator Heather Lineberry pointed up the useful nature of the rugs by exhibiting with them a collection of Teec Nos Pas pieces that were specifically woven as art, and have never seen a floor, let alone the back of a horse.
It doesn't take a trained eye to see that the Castle Hot Springs rugs are pretty easily bested when it comes to quality. That, however, is irrelevant to the purpose of the exhibition, which demonstrates two different approaches to weaving, one enmeshed in history, the other in aesthetics.
"They make a wonderful contrast, the two collections," Lineberry says. "It's interesting for museums to deal with those issues."
@body:Pat Talley remembers celebrating her 21st birthday at the resort her parents once owned. "We swam in the pool by moonlight, we had a wonderful outdoor cookout in the mountains and everyone fell asleep by the campfires," she recalls. "And we watched the comet Kahoutek come overhead."
With the romanticism to be expected of someone describing a former family home, Pat Talley talks about Castle Hot Springs' "magic." "People are spiritual when they're up there," Pat Talley says. "They're close to nature and to God."
For almost two decades, she has kept pieces of furniture and rugs from the resort, as well as guest ledgers, menus and photographs. The Talley family also kept several hundred acres of land for itself after it donated Castle Hot Springs to the ASU Foundation, and Pat Talley and her mother run a working cattle ranch on it. Pat Talley laughs as she explains that she's been compiling material for a book on the resort since 1968, visiting families from back east who stayed there, and who have photos and memorabilia. She calls herself "the girl from way out west," as if to point up that her natural habitat is among those people.
And yet the Talleys did away with some of the clubbiness at Castle Hot Springs, without, Pat Talley says, ever making it "touristy." While before only registered guests could dine there--three meals a day were included in the cost of a room--under the Talleys' ownership in the Seventies, the dining room was open to the public, and Castle Hot Springs became a popular place for locals to spend New Year's Eve.
Over the past few years, however, Pat Talley has seen Lake Pleasant affect the life that she and her ranching neighbors enjoy. "They're being overwhelmed with people from the lake," she says. "People come up with tremendous amounts of alcohol in four-wheel-drive trucks with semiautomatic machine guns. They shoot randomly at our houses and are wildly and unbelievably drunk."
Development is inevitable, she thinks, and threatens to destroy the very qualities that make Castle Hot Springs so precious. So while she and the ranchers in the area wait to see what the future brings, Pat Talley is enjoying the hotel while she can. Recently, she celebrated her 41st birthday at Castle Hot Springs--with the same friends, the same swim in the pool and the same night under the stars that had commemorated her 21st. "I feel enormously grateful in life that I have not only the place that I can go back to, but the same steady people," she says.
@body:You have to drive eight miles on a dirt road and cross Castle Creek several times before Castle Hot Springs heaves into view. The yellow buildings and the green grass of the resort appear startlingly bright and lush against the background of dust and desert. For the past 15 years, Bud and Dorothy Mullins have been the caretakers of the place, and according to Bud, that involves mostly chasing away New Age types who climb over the fence to sit in the hot springs.
Bud is standing in front of the office building at the resort, which used to house the post office, and in front of which the stagecoaches used to draw up. Folks at the resort, tired of the golf course whose nine holes were actually three holes played three times, would place bets on where the stagecoach's wheel would stop.
At least that's what Bud says, but acquaintances' estimates as to the percentage of truth in Bud's stories range from a high of 50 to a low of 2 percent. He will also tell you that the phone booth at the resort was the first one in Arizona. There are a lot of famous firsts in Bud's tales.
He is standing by the golf cart he rides around on all day. A yellow dog named Blondie is waiting for his next trip. Blondie, who is a male but so gentle and sweet he is invariably called "she," has already hopped onto the seat.
Mockingbirds are singing, English sparrows are taking little baths in a fountain, the bougainvillea is blooming. Sprinklers are creating rainbows with their spray. A breeze is blowing through the palm trees and the morning air is still cool. God's in his heaven, and all's right with the world.
Then what looks like a small hippopotamus walks into sight. It is a potbellied pig whose stomach drags along the ground. It is also a confirmation of the belief that people who paid thousands of dollars for these were really dumb. Named Wilbur, the pig spends his time begging sandwiches from passing motorists at the resort gate.
Wilbur drags off to start his day's activities. Bud begins his tour. Guest accommodations at Castle Hot Springs consisted of the Stone House, a two-story building with long hallways flanked by rooms, and half a dozen three-bedroom cottages. There's also the office building, which housed the bar and looks out on the swimming pool. The dining room and additional rooms used to be located in the Palm House, the building that burned in 1976 and ended the resort's commercial career.
Bud points to the palm trees whose trunks are still blackened from the fire. He is equally assiduous in pointing out the difference between bat feces--they collect close to the walls where the bats hang--and the droppings of the ringtail cats who sleep on the beds.
Castle Hot Springs is a mess. Piles of junk are everywhere--piles of chairs, old bathing suits, old makeup jars. It has changed ownership more times than the Brooklyn Bridge, and each owner seems to have used it to store stuff he or she never intended to reclaim.
Piles of plaster on the floor attest to structural problems, peeling paint to neglect and unspeakable green-flowered bedspreads and ghastly red rugs to the halfheartedness of efforts to make it habitable.
Oddly, the beds are all made, a precious few covered with chenille bedspreads that again seem to demand an ocean and a reversal of the calendar 50 or so years. They date from the period of twin beds, transoms and sinks in the bedroom--all of which Castle Hot Springs boasts. Equally quaint are the clawfoot tubs in the bathrooms. In the Stone House, many of those bathrooms would have been shared by two rooms.
"Old man Brumder of the Waukesha tool company would only stay in this building," Bud says, shaking his head at the odd ways of the very rich.
@body:The nephews of "old man Brumder" own the hotel now. Steve and Charles Trainer are the third generation in their family to visit Castle Hot Springs. Their grandfather, Robert Uihlein of Schlitz Brewing, came starting in the Twenties, and once even owned a share in the resort.
Uihlein was the one who used to disappear on horseback for a week at a time. The Trainers have apparently inherited their grandfather's love of horses; Steve Trainer claims the resort has the best riding trails in the country, and both he and his brother own homes in the area to avail themselves of those routes in the Bradshaw Mountains.
"It really has not ever changed since it was built," Steve Trainer says of Castle Hot Springs. "To some people, that was not attractive--they wanted to see it updated, to be more consistent with the urban resorts like the Phoenician or the Camelback Inn or the Biltmore. "To me, one of the things I loved about it even as a kid was that it did never change. And the people who worked there were the same people year in and year out. It was almost a family." Although the Trainers have restored historic buildings in the family's hometown of Milwaukee, they have kept Castle Hot Springs off the National Register while it's on the market. And Steve Trainer is deliberately vague when it comes to his plans for the resort. The Trainers have listed it for sale, but failing a buyer with $4.5 million to acquire it and plenty more to restore it, they may develop it themselves sometime this year.
"We've had a lot of interest, particularly in the last 60 days," Steve Trainer says. "I suspect it's because the economy in Arizona is improving."
If the Trainers developed it, the new Castle Hot Springs would be a little jewel of a resort, some 45 units in all, but with a better golf course. The brothers have already renovated one of the cottages to get an idea of how it would look with 18 years' worth of junk removed from the rooms, and the bathrooms updated.
It looks quite spiffy. One thing, however, would not change. Two of the guest rooms still share a bath.
@body:Mike Smith wasn't born in Morristown, but after he moved to the little town as a teenager, he felt like he'd finally found his home. When he was in the Army, he missed the desert so much he took a pencil and drew from memory the mountains he could see from the Castle Hot Springs Road.
"I can't sit here and tell you I honestly remember the first time seeing it," he says of Castle Hot Springs, "but I'd love to be with someone who doesn't know it's there, and put them in a vehicle and drive them out there and get a reaction. It's just so out of place."
He was so fascinated by the hotel, he did research on it for a class he took in Arizona history. Then, for a course last semester at ASU West, Mike Smith suggested that the old hotel would be a good topic for a documentary. This April, he and a fellow student were given the run of the hotel for filming. It was the first time Mike Smith had ever set foot on the grounds he had been fantasizing about for years.
"I was just . . ." He hesitates and starts over. "It haunted me for three days. Afterwards, I'd lay in bed and think, 'Wow, it's dark out there now.'"
With his neatly trimmed mustache, and his confident, polite manner, Mike Smith has the air of someone whose natural good manners were improved by a couple of years in the Army.
When he and his partner were finished filming, Mike Smith wrote thank-you notes to Steve Trainer, as well as to Bud Mullins.
"To the folks who know about Castle Hot Springs, it's almost a shrine," Smith says.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.
- Inmates Accuse Arizona of Experimenting with Lethal-Injection Drugs
Thu., Dec. 10, 6:25pm
Fri., Dec. 11, 7:00pm
Fri., Dec. 11, 7:30pm
Fri., Dec. 11, 7:30pm
- 10 Things Arizonans Hate About Snowbirds
- Scottsdale Couple Are Pioneers in Tiny-Home Movement in Arizona