Tales of the Mystery Castle on the mountain

By Jason Kron. Photos by Michelle Dawn.April 2019 Issue.

The story behind Phoenix’s Mystery Castle goes like this: In 1929, Boyce Luther Gulley left his family and job in Seattle and retreated to Arizona upon learning that he had tuberculosis. He spent the remainder of his life keeping in minimal contact with his wife Francis and daughter Mary Lou, and they had no idea that he was sick or what he was doing in the desert.

It turned out that what he was doing was

constructing a house out of recycled materials, such as using telephone poles

for ceiling beams and tire rims for window frames.  He was expected to only live a few more

months upon getting his diagnosis, so he wanted to spend his remaining time

building a place for his family to live after he passed. (He ended up living

over 15 more years before dying in 1945 of cancer.)

When Boyce finally did kick the bucket, his

family was notified that they were left this house on South Mountain, which at

the time was over six miles away from any other sign of civilization, and they

decided to move there immediately without having even seen it first.

His will stipulated that they wait three

years before opening a special trapdoor on the property. When the time finally

came to open it in 1948, Life magazine got wind of the peculiar story

and came out to report it. It turned out that the room housed $1,000 in cash, a

large quantity of gold, and other relics such as letters and portraits. (The

trap door is now covered by an iron alligator.)

The Life story brought the house

fame, and with that came plenty of trespassers. This gave Mary Lou the idea to

begin charging for tours of the property, and that became her primary means of

income for over 60 years until her death in 2010. A foundation inherited the

property and still give tours regularly, often to snowbird seniors looking for

desert oddities.

This house constructed out of trash hasn’t

changed structurally since the 1940s, which alone is worth marveling at. Its

multiple floors and 18 rooms house a bar, a room for weddings, a room known as

“Purgatory,” an abundance of cat collectibles (pillows, cats painted on stones,

etc.), pillows made out of jeans, jeans hanging from the ceiling for

decoration, windows with bullet holes, and a seemingly endless array of kitschy

knick-knacks around every corner.

Photographs and gaudy portraits of Mary Lou

greet visitors on several of the property walls. She looked and seemed like an

average old lady living in Phoenix, complete with the gray bowl cut and

American flags still decorating parts of the castle (I’d like to think that she

wouldn’t have voted for Trump). But unlike most people, who often dream of

living outside the box but lack the conviction for follow through, Mary Lou was

willing to sacrifice what most of us consider to be minimally tolerable living

conditions. Many years of her time living in the Mystery Castle were spent

without running water or electricity, including the summers that the rest of us

can barely survive even with those things.

Her level of eccentricity begins to make

sense when you consider that when her father heard of his impending demise,

then his Point A-to-Point B logic led him to say to himself, “I’m going to move

1,500 miles away from my family, spend my remaining days in complete isolation

and build a castle made out of garbage.” It’s safe to say that if put in

similar positions as Boyce or Mary Lou, most of us would make decisions more in

line with what society would expect. And this is what a large portion of the

appeal of the Mystery Castle is.

People pack the frequent tours throughout

the day, observe the outlandish architecture, marvel at the bizarre decorating

scheme, ponder the possible memories and mindsets of the house’s past tenants,

create inevitable comparisons to themselves, and wonder what it would be like

to give the rest of the world the finger and truly live in accordance with

one’s own rules. Therein lies the heroism, inspiration, and encouragement to

dream that come from living in a tower of trash.

If you’re

inspired to see it for yourself, visit mymysterycastle.com for admission


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