Tovrea Castle Still Stands as a Symbol for Ambitions Lost and Found Again

I spoke recently to a college journalism class on the subject of critical thinking.

"You mean," a student asked after I was done blabbing about synthesis and evaluation, "that you can find beauty in anything based on what its intention was?"

"Yes," I said, and launched into a description of Tovrea Castle, which came to mind because I'd driven by it that morning on my way to Tempe.

It was, I pointed out, not really a castle at all, but an oddly built, peculiarly designed house in what was, when it was originally constructed, literally the middle of nowhere at 50th Street and Van Buren. It's a goofball structure; an anomaly that looks for all the world like an attraction at a miniature golf course. Seen from eastbound Loop 202, Tovrea is both a kitschy reminder that Phoenix was once even weirder than it is today and a testimony to the fact that the city's inability to finish anything isn't a new trend.

Tovrea can be considered a failure, I told my captive audience of bored-looking kids, because it was meant to be the crowning jewel of a privately owned housing development that never came to be. Or it can be considered a true success story, because it's an essentially useless building — a flag-topped, dome-roofed, turreted castle in the middle of the Southwest desert — that has been embraced by a city that typically tears down any structure deemed unworthy of its latest overlay plans.

I was hoping, as I blathered on, that none of these students had noticed how crappy Tovrea Castle had been looking lately. Efforts to restore the castle commenced a couple of years ago, but whenever I drove past these days, the building was kind of a mess. I found out later that that's because of the temporary roof sheltering the second level, which obscures the storybook turrets along the building's squat middle.

"It definitely throws the profile off," agrees City of Phoenix Parks and Recreation Supervisor Mark Lamm, who swears the temporary roof will come down shortly, as soon as construction is complete.

Lamm (who wants everyone to know that Tovrea is pronounced "Toe-vree," and not "Toe-vray-ah," a popular mispronunciation that even some of Tovrea builder Alessio Carrara's descendants still use) says that the recent monsoon storm that blew through the Valley slowed the garden restoration a little, wiping out 75 Saguaro and annihilating the building crew's construction trailer. "But the castle itself was completely unharmed," marvels Lamm. "We didn't have so much as a single broken window."

Although its twice-monthly garden tours commenced last week, the grounds, which are being restored with primarily private funds, aren't quite done. "But the garden today is still more than passable," Lamm says with absolutely no irony. Until the five separate gardens, outbuildings, and water features are completed, visitors will have to make do with a video of the building's history and an "interpretive trail" of the grounds. By late March, Lamm says, the castle itself will be completed and open to the public. Gawkers and anyone who's ever driven by wondering why the hell there's a castle poking out of the desert will finally have their answers.

Tovrea Castle and the surrounding Carraro Cactus Garden were built in 1928 by Italian immigrant Alessio Carraro, who'd unloaded his San Francisco sheet metal business and relocated to Arizona, where he meant to retire. Soon after arriving, he hatched a plan to create his own resort town on 277 acres of creosoted desert just east of the Phoenix city limits. Carraro imagined a resort castle surrounded by dense acres of vegetation, and between 1928 and 1930, he and a crew of two dozen workers overhauled the barren landscape into a colossal cactus garden, designed by a Russian gardener named Moktachev and wrapped around a magnificent wedding cake of a house inspired by the homes of nobles in Carraro's Italian homeland.

Carraro's fantasy of lording over his own New American resort community was crushed by the moneybags Tovrea family which, while Carraro and company were busy popping prickly pears and Saguaro into the ground, had bought the adjoining property and begun constructing sheep and cattle pens to supply their nearby meatpacking plant.

Poor Carraro, who didn't want to live surrounded by livestock, sold his play castle and cactus garden to meatpacking matriarch Della Tovrea in 1931. She lived there until her death in 1969. Afterward, the property languished, held onto by the Tovrea family but largely unused. In 1993, the city purchased the castle and the 36 acres of land surrounding it and are now just short of finished restoring the whole shebang.

It's about time. The place has been falling apart for years. After writing a series of articles about the castle for a home and garden magazine in the early 1990s, I befriended the building's caretaker, Bill, and attended dinner parties there from time to time. Back then, the place was a complete disaster; there were rooms we couldn't go into at all, for fear of falling through the floors. Still, after a bottle of wine, Bill and I usually ended up snaking our way through the trio of creepy tunnels that ran under the castle and into the basement, where the ceiling was stuccoed like meringue. There was a giant Phoenix National Bank safe down there, around which the castle was reportedly built, with a beautiful painting on the door. Bill and I always ended up on the roof, looking out over the cactus and into the parking lot of a titty bar a few hundred yards away. I remember being surprised that the lights that shone so brightly from the castle's edifice at night were screwed straight into the stucco.

But now it appears that, come March, I'll be able to revisit my old haunt whenever I like. (Tovrea has gone all 21st century on us; reservations for its garden tours must be made online at Every penny of the $15 admission price goes toward upkeep of the castle and its gardens.)

The city's plans for Carraro's castle in the desert are ambitious: Rather than just coming out to gawk at it, fans can rent this "world-class park and historical attraction" for social functions, as well. Everyone else, Lamm says, can come to the castle to see a part of Phoenix's history. But whenever I look at this madly impractical structure stuck way out in that colossal cactus bed, I see neither a party place nor a piece of Southwestern history. I see a history of dashed dreams, abandoned and then reclaimed in the land of opportunity.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela