February 18, 2011 | 8:30am
There's not much mystery behind the Mystery Castle near South Mountain, but there is a great story behind this sprawling, quirky house.
Construction on the castle started in 1929, when the builder, Boyce Luther Gulley, drove to Phoenix from Seattle in a Stutz Bearcat. He'd been diagnosed with tuberculosis, and, figuring he was dying, he left his wife and daughter behind. They had no idea where he went or what he was doing until he died in 1945 -- not from tuberculosis, but cancer.
Turns out, Gulley had spent his 15 years in Phoenix building the Mystery Castle for his wife, Flora, and his little girl, Mary Lou Gulley.
used primarily recycled materials; the windshield of the Stutz Bearcat ended up in a stove vent in the kitchen, and slate floor tiles in the main living room are recycled blackboards from an old Phoenix school house. By the time Gulley died, he'd constructed a castle that included 18 rooms and thirteen fireplaces (he was the 13th child in his family, and considered 13 his lucky number).
Mary Lou Gulley began giving tours of the castle in 1948. She died last November, but tours are still given at her home.
The Mystery Castle is a marvel from the outside, but the inside is equally impressive. The secondary living room was built around a saguaro, which still stands in the middle of the room today, now just a wooden skeleton. The bedroom is filled with photographs, and also contains furniture from the old House of Joy brothel in Jerome
, where Boyce Gulley owned additional properties.
There are antiques and collectibles throughout the castle, including the original deed to the property, signed by president Franklin Roosevelt. There's also a letter signed by president Bill Clinton in the bedroom. Also throughout the house are tons of Mary Lou Gulley's pillows decorated with cats. Tour guides joke about her "cat pillow problem."
One of the three buildings at the castle includes a main room, which Mary Lou Gulley called "purgatory" because there's a chapel in a room on one side, and a bar in the room on the other side. The most intriguing feature of this main room is the trap door, which is guarded by a metal alligator sculpture. According to the tour guide, Boyce Gulley left instructions for his wife and daughter not to open the trap door until two years after his death. When they opened the trap door in 1948 (for a story in Life magazine, nonetheless), they discovered two $500 bills, the deed to the land, and Valentine's Day letters Mary Lou had written to her father.
The bar room is remarkable not only for its eclectic décor (skeletons and stuffed toddler dolls), but for its natural sky lights and dummy waiter. It definitely seemed to be one of the more popular rooms on the tour, which, by the way, was packed. We're told Thursdays are the biggest days for tours at the Mystery Castle, and there were at least 30 people on ours. Many were older folks and retirees who came from out of state. Some said they'd been hearing about the castle for years -- either from friends, or via the media. The Mystery Castle was the subject of an Emmy Award-winning documentary in 1999, and is also on the National Register of Historic Places, and a Phoenix Point of Pride
Mary Lou Gulley, who lived in the castle for 65 years, reportedly said the castle taught her about the kind of man her father was. Visitors to the castle immediately sense Boyce Luther Gulley was a man of vision, and marvel at the unique legacy he left behind.
The Mystery Castle is located at 800 E. Mineral Road. Tour hours are from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Thursday through Sunday. Admission costs $5 for adults, and $3 for children under 12. Call 602-268-1581 for more information.