Architecture and Design

Historic Tovrea Castle is "Closer" to Being Open to the Public

John Driggs is in a castle on a hill in the middle of Phoenix.

The retired politician and historic preservation champion spends most of his time (or at least part of every day) at Tovrea Castle -- the yellow, cake-like estate just off Interstate 202. He's been checking on it for more than a decade: overseeing the Carraro Cactus Gardens and the preservation of what's left of the original fixtures and furniture.

The 84-year-old holds the keys to one of Arizona's oldest and most iconic structures. It was built in 1929 by an Italian immigrant and sold in the 30s to cattle baron, E.A. Tovrea for his wife, Della. The estate was passed down through the Tovrea family, wrapped up in one of Arizona's most sensational murder trials, and ultimately left collecting dust.

It's a historical oddity in the middle of the city, Driggs says. And his goal is to bring the public in.

As the castle sat for empty for decades, the paint chipped and the plumbing corroded.

But that was before Driggs was involved. He's the middleman -- he orchestrated a city bond election that, in effect, purchased the building in the public's name and funded (partially, at least) its restoration. And in the decade since New Times first reported on Drigg's efforts, the former Phoenix mayor has overseen a new paint job, a garden overhaul, and an interior restoration with money he's squeezed out of the city and when that wasn't enough, private donations.

He's eager to point to signs of sustainable renovation -- building sections of the property walls from recycled highway and keeping every other lightbulb around the octagonal castle lit at night (though he points out on a recent tour that a few have gone out).

The issues of public access to the building (by city standards) have been endless -- smoke detectors and sprinklers have been installed, a small elevator goes from the basement to the first floor, per Americans with Disabilities Act standards.

But -- amazingly -- there's still no working toilet. And so Driggs' last mission is to design and fund an expansive plumbing system that would satisfy city standards and allow the building to be open to the public and rented for special occasions (yes, including weddings). 

Driggs is currently waiting on contractors and architects to estimate the cost of the piping (he estimates will run around $1 million). Once the money is raised, in the form of private donation and otherwise, the City will decide the construction timeline and Driggs will be cleared to start giving tours and showing off one of his favorite buildings in Phoenix.

In the meantime, he'll be working on those light bulbs.

Driggs took us on a tour of the castle last week. Scroll down for more photos ...


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Claire Lawton
Contact: Claire Lawton