In Phoenix is a building remarkable in itself, but even more interesting is the story behind it. Mystery Castle stands in the foothills of South Mountain Park; once alone in the desert, Phoenix is now rushing up to meet it.
It was the work of Seattle advertising man, Boyce Luther Gulley, who, in 1929, was diagnosed with tuberculosis. The best hope of a cure then relied upon being in a warm, dry climate, so he moved to Arizona. The only problem was, he didn’t tell his wife, Frances, or his 5-year-old daughter, Mary Lou, where he was going. He simply said he wanted to pursue a life as an artist and drove off in his new Stutz Bearcat. They would never see him again.
It’s thought that Gulley did indeed believe that he had just six months to live and didn’t want to put his family though any suffering (although simply deserting them doesn’t seem to be much of an alternative). Six months passed and then another and he hadn’t died. So it was then that he started upon his life’s work; staking a claim on land close to the South Mountains, he began building what would become an incredible, meandering house with 18 rooms, 13 fireplaces, a chapel and a dungeon. It was built of all types of recycled material – adobe, stone, railroad tracks, telegraph poles, even parts of the Stutz Bearcat when it ceased to be of use – held together with cement, mortar, calcum and goat milk. Gulley, who had had basic architectural training, bartered for materials and also laboured and sold shoes when he needed cash.
And for the next 16 years the house grew and grew. However, even with his tuberculosis cured, at no point did Gulley send for his family. Some stories say they believed he was dead, but it seems likely that he did send the occasional letter to Seattle in later years, although without saying exactly where he was (other family members, however, did visit the house, as did many of Gulley’s friends). Then, in 1945, Boyce Gulley died, not of TB but cancer. He left the house to his wife and daughter, along with a mysterious locked trap door and the stipulation that they had to live there for three years before it could be opened.
Life magazine covered the opening of the locked compartment, as well as dubbing the place Mystery Castle, although it contained just two $500 bills, some gold nuggets and a Valentine’s card Mary Lou had made for her father when she was a child. Mary Lou stayed on and in fact lived in the house until her death in 2010, although it had no plumbing or electricity until 1992. The accepted story is that this was a labour of love for her on her father’s part, to build her the castle she had always wanted as a little girl. However, I suspect much of this may have been embroidered by Mary Lou to excuse why her father had deserted her; Boyce Gulley seems to have been a selfish albeit talented man who, even after his death, continued to manipulate his family. Mystery Castle is an amazing place, but also a rather sad one; that Mary Lou continued to live in the building seems to be the act of a sad little girl clinging onto an idealised image of her father. I can’t help thinking that, rather than some fantasy building in the desert, she would have much preferred to have her father in her life.