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

Last month, KJZZ contributor Robrt Pela wrote an essay about a pending demolition permit for what’s known as Mystery Castle, a sprawling structure that’s located in the foothills of South Mountain. 

Built in the 1930s, the historic property was named a Phoenix Point of Pride by the city and has drawn visitors for decades.

But, in November of 2023, a full demolition permit was requested by the current owner, the president of the Mystery Castle Foundation — a nonprofit that has maintained the castle since 2010. 

Now, the foundation says it has no intention of demolishing the castle, but isn't providing any details about their plans for the site.

Pela joined The Show to talk about it.

Full conversation

LAUREN GILGER: Good morning, Robrt.

ROBRT PELA: Hey, Lauren.

GILGER: OK. So let's lay out the facts here. First, the owners of this castle say it is not being demolished, but there has been a demolition permit requested. What's happened with that permit?

PELA: Well, the permit has technically been denied. It's been, it's been given a stay of demolition by the city, which means that the owner of the building has a year — until November of this year — to knock it down or rehabilitate it or we don't know what. But that's, that's pretty traditional. When when it's denied, gives the owner of the property the opportunity to make some movement.

GILGER: OK. OK. So what are the owners at this point telling you about why they requested that permit if they do not plan to demolish it?

PELA: They are not telling me anything, they're not telling anyone anything. And the community is left to speculate about why you would, for example, request a demolition permit when you don't plan to demolish the building. So, what they have said publicly is a very short statement on the website for Mystery Castle, which says that I got the facts wrong in my essay and that they have no intention of demolishing the building.

So of course, the question I would have — and I imagine anyone would — have is why would you request a demolition permit if you were just going to knock down a fence or repaint the building or replace the curtains or whatever? I mean, it doesn't make any sense. And then of course, you know, let's demonize the media for daring to say that we're going to demolish a building for which we requested a demolition permit.

GILGER: So the building hasn't been in kind of working order for quite some time, right? Where, where does it stand now?

PELA: You're right. It's not being, it's not being used right now. It was vandalized a couple of years ago. They shut down for a little while, cleaned things up, reopened and then very quickly shut down again and, and so it hasn't been used, the public has not been able to visit Mystery Castle.

GILGER: So why else? You mentioned speculation. You know, why else would they have requested a demolition permit? What are the theories out here?

PELA: The theories are all mine. So this is, again, me speculating because I can't get anyone from Mystery Castle to tell me what they plan to do. And the city of Phoenix Historic Preservation Office is not responding to my calls and emails either. So I'm left to wonder, did the owner of Mystery Castle request a demolition permit to force the city's hand? To essentially say to the city: "Hey, we can't afford to run this place anymore. We need for you to step in."

Or to maybe create interest from the community who could then potentially do the same thing. A private investor could come in and say, "Hey, listen, I love this building. Here's $17 million to fix it up and reopen it."

The only other option would be that they plan to demolish it. Those are the only three things I can come up with. And quite honestly, yeah, you're a taxpayer. I'm a taxpayer. Do you want your city public servants to have their hands forced, to be painted into a corner, where they're made to pay for a survey and either tear down a building or come up with the money to keep it there? I don't.

GILGER: There has been a survey of the property that was kind of commissioned to determine how much it might cost to restore or preserve the building. Right? Where does that stand?

PELA: Well, it was supposed to be finished at the end of April. But here we are in May. It was commissioned, I believe by the current owner, who hired the Motley Design Group to do this survey. And when you do a survey, you're not just looking into what needs to be done to rehab a building, but it is also part of a demolition process. You don't just get a permit to demolish something, and then someone comes in and knocks it over. There has to be a survey that says here's what needs to be done before the demolition. So we don't know, we haven't seen any evidence that the survey was completed. What I want to know is who paid for the survey? You know, if the Mystery Castle Foundation is out of money and can't run the place anymore or rehab the place, who paid for that survey? Those are pretty expensive, from what I understand.

GILGER: So what has, Robrt, the Phoenix Historic Preservation Office said to you about this?

PELA: Nothing. They have not responded to emails or telephone calls inquiring about the status of Mystery Castle.

GILGER: OK. So what is next here? Like do you think at this point that they're going to reopen the Mystery Castle?

PELA: I would hope that, although the owner of Mystery Castle pulled a demolition permit, and then went public saying I have no intention of knocking it down, that that second part would mean she's going to restore the building and reopen to the public.

I wanted to believe that, until I noticed that there were two antique dealers on Facebook Marketplace selling off the contents of Mystery Castle. And I contacted them. And one of them appears to have cleared out the castle last August, and this demolition permit was pulled three months later. So I don't know what that means. It does not point to, we're going to reopen and you're going to be able to come and see Mary Lou's possessions, where they were before we close the place down.

GILGER: But there is an historic preservation meeting coming up where we might find out more?

PELA: Yes, May 20, I believe. And I don't know that that Mystery Castle is on the agenda, but that would be probably the next place where we would hear about its future.

GILGER: All right, we'll wait and see. Robrt Pela, KJZZ contributor, joining us. Robrt, thanks as always.

PELA: Thanks, Lauren.

KJZZ's The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ's programming is the audio record.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.