Castle Keep

The dancer that frolics above the mantel has a twin sister -- at the Orpheum Theatre.
Paolo Vescia

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.

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.

"The city should own the whole piece," says Phil Tovrea III, one of E.A.'s great-grandchildren. "It would make a great park."

Tovrea, who lived in the castle for 15 years, says the heirs all agree that the remaining land must be sold, but one faction wants it sold and preserved as a park, the other will sell to anyone who will pay their price. He says he wants the city to get the land.

"The city made a big mistake," says Tovrea. "When they purchased it, they should have purchased the whole property. It wouldn't suit the property in the future to have a subdivision or business property on it. Once the property's developed, we will never be able to retrieve it."

Terry Goddard was mayor when voters approved the acquisition of the castle and its acreage. But he would soon vacate that post to run for governor. Paul Johnson inherited the mayor's seat until he, too, made a gubernatorial bid. Skip Rimsza was elected next.

None would provide the leadership -- or, rather, the money -- needed to secure for future generations the precious ground on which the gem sits.

If the castle and its grounds have any champions at City Hall, they are ineffectual.

The city is crafting another big bond issue. Voters will act on our leaders' $700 million vision in March.

A citizens Historical and Cultural Subcommittee was asked to recommend $13.5 million to turn Tovrea Castle and environs into a fully restored and functioning city asset. Nearly $8 million of that sum would have been dedicated to land acquisition.

The subcommittee unanimously rejected that request, but designated $2.5 million of a $14 million preservation pot go to castle restoration. Nothing for land acquisition.

What the panel did not reject were appropriations of $27 million to refurbish Symphony Hall, $18.2 million to expand Phoenix Art Museum, nearly $5 million for the Arizona Science Center and $10.5 million to create something called the Phoenix Family Museum. (You want a "Phoenix family museum"? How about one that was actually inhabited by a Phoenix family?)

Meanwhile, a separate Parks and Preserves Subcommittee recommended $85 million in improvements for the March ballot. Neither Tovrea Castle nor its grounds are mentioned. But money is urged for the Japanese Tea Garden, the Irish Cultural and Education Center, $2.5 million for a "Wilderness Camp" in northern Arizona and $10 million to acquire 60 acres south of South Mountain.

Phoenix is a relatively young city. It has few defining architectural treasures. So it's difficult to comprehend why City Hall strains to manufacture a cultural heritage rather than preserve a genuine article.

When John Driggs served as mayor during the '70s, one of his last acts was to see that the city acquired and preserved the historic Rosson House. The splendid Victorian home is now the centerpiece of Heritage Square.

Driggs is now retired from politics, but nurturing the city's heritage remains his avocation. He's been guiding tours of Tovrea Castle, singing its praises -- and potential -- to anyone who will listen. In his view, the castle needs a constituency -- and soon.

"This is one of the most incredible opportunities that the city has," Driggs says on a recent daytime reconnoiter. "It's a treasure that people don't know about.

"It's the most significant manmade landmark, an icon for the city. What does Phoenix have for a symbol? What city in the country has a castle?"

Driggs' eyes sparkle as he surveys the castle's first-floor great room, lit by broad windows and highlighted by a large plaster plaque of a dancer -- a twin sister of one that graces the Orpheum Theatre.

The castle's basement is spacious. (It's not a dungeon, though police once found a man cowering there who was convinced he was a vampire.) Vaulted tunnels serve as walkways to the cactus gardens outside. The ceiling -- a beguiling inverted seascape of plaster meringue -- creates the feel of a grotto. The massive door of an old bank vault guards the wine cellar.  

Driggs climbs the stairwell to show off the tiny, irregularly shaped guest rooms. He steps out onto the roof of the top layer of the "wedding cake," seemingly oblivious to the lightning flashing nearby, and surveys the castle's realm.

"They talk about creating desert preserves way out on the fringe of the Valley," he says, shaking his head. "Well, this is right in the middle of the city, surrounded by urbanization."

Driggs believes the city has an "absolute obligation" to purchase the remainder of the castle tract, restore the structure and let the community behold its elegant quirks.

But that won't happen until policymakers make it a top priority. The City Council should do just that when it finalizes the March bond program.

As Phil Tovrea III observes, "For the price of two shootings by the police department, the city could buy the whole thing. They could do anything, if they wanted to."

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