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 details.