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The owner of Phoenix Mystery Castle wants to demolish it

Mystery Castle is, according to legend, made of stone and held together by mortar and goat’s milk. Normally a structure built in a 20th century American city wouldn’t qualify as a castle. But this is Phoenix and, although there’s no moat or drawbridge,  Mystery Castle is — a castle.

And because this is Phoenix, that castle is set to be torn down.

Located in the foothills of South Mountain Park, it was built in the 1930s by Boyce Luther Gulley who, like a whole lot of other people, moved to Phoenix about 100 years ago to recover from tuberculosis. Once he had, he set about building a castle for his young daughter, Mary Lou. 

→  Phoenix Mystery Castle owner won't say what's happening to the historic property

Gulley built the sprawling 18-room residence from stone, adobe, and a huge pile of found objects. Its façade is studded with pieces of old automobiles and telephone poles that jut from below its roofline. There’s a fence made from rail tracks salvaged from a shuttered coal mine. The castle has its own chapel and, like any good castle, a dungeon. All these years later, it’s a work in progress: Plumbing and electricity were added in the early 1990s, and some of the castle’s rooms remain unfinished.

In spite of that, Mary Lou and her mother moved into the castle after Boyce Gulley died in 1945. The women began offering tours. A LIFE Magazine article of the time referred to the building as a “fairy tale dream house.”

But no dream house is safe in Maricopa County, where prestigious and interesting buildings are routinely targeted for destruction. This time, the call is coming from inside the castle: In November 2023, a full demolition permit was requested by Rita Spears, the president of the Mystery Castle Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that has maintained the castle since Mary Lou’s death in 2010. The permit was reportedly denied for one year by the Phoenix Historic Preservation Office. Which means Mystery Castle could be demolished as early as this coming November — unless someone does something to stop it.

Historic preservationists are likely looking at another battle with greedy developers, assuming there’s a consensus among them that Mystery Castle is worth saving. Meanwhile, Spears has remained mum — she didn’t respond to my emails — why she’s thinking about knocking down the castle, which ironically is among those sites designated by the city as a Phoenix Point of Pride.

The building was vandalized in March 202 2, suffering about $100,000 in damage. Tours have since been suspended, and the castle’s social media pages mention nothing about the demolition permit.

As happens with any legend, there are whispered rumors. One story claims that the castle was left to its caretaker in Mary Lou’s will, but he didn’t want it. Another claims that a local nonprofit that preserves public art is eyeing the castle for safekeeping. But that would require that the castle be donated to the nonprofit before it could protect and restore it. And this is Phoenix, where land is more valuable than the weirdest structure you could ever build on it.

Even a 90-year-old castle made of telephone poles and goat’s milk. Stranger things have happened here. A few years ago, the city dumped nearly $10 million into saving our other castle, Tovrea Castle. A nonprofit was launched to oversee that building in partnership with our parks and recreation department.

I hear that Phoenix City Council is waiting on survey results that will indicate the cost of bringing Mary Lou’s castle up to city code, the first step in saving it. And that at least one activist is working up a conservation easement to protect the castle from being destroyed.

 Will it? Forgive me for saying so, but for now, that’s the biggest mystery of all.

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Robrt Pela is a contributor to KJZZ's The Show.