Mystery Castle is a Phoenix Point of Pride, named as such by the Phoenix Pride Commission. It was built by Boyce Luther Gulley, who abandoned his wife and daughter in Seattle, circa 1927, after learning that he had tuberculosis. He traveled to Phoenix and started building a "castle" that he had promised to his little girl once while building sand castles on a beach. Mary Lou Gulley was a toddler when her father unexpectedly left and never returned.
Boyce Gulley Built It
Boyce Gulley lived longer than he thought he would, and he spent 15 years building his dream house. Interestingly enough, he did not die of tuberculosis.
I have already explained why the house is referred to as a castle, but why is it a mystery? Boyce Gullet left instructions for his wife and daughter, to whom he left the house in Phoenix, that there was a trap door in the house that should not be opened for two years after his death. His wife and daughter complied with his request. The trap door is located in a room that was called "purgatory" (between the chapel and the bar!). When LIFE Magazine came to the Gulley home to do a story on Mystery Castle in 1948, the trap door was opened and the mystery revealed. You'll hear what the mystery contents were when you take the tour.
Although children are invited to attend the tour, and there are basically no restrictions on touching -- and there are a lot of items to touch -- they may not be as interested in an eclectic, unusually constructed home as adults would be. When I visited, the kids seemed more interested in throwing rocks in the yard than spending time in the house.
Mary Lou Gulley Lived in There
Boyce Gulley's daughter, Mary Lou, met tour participants in the main house section at the Mystery Castle for many years. No one was allowed to visit her bedroom, but you could see her kitchen and other rooms in the main living area. Mystery Castle is fascinating, but meeting and talking to Mary Lou might have been be the most interesting part of the tour. Mary Lou's health began to fail and tours continued while she stayed in the background.
Mary Lou Gulley passed away in November 2010, but the tours are still being conducted by the foundation that manages the historical property.
A Historic Property
Mystery Castle is on the Phoenix Historic Property Register, ensuring that it will be preserved even though Mary Lou Gulley is no longer there to maintain it. It is quite a testament to the resourcefulness of its architect and builder, who built an 8,000 square foot home on 40 acres out of discarded items, remnants, seconds, personal items, donations and whatever else he could find or bargain for.
Today the property is just a tiny bit over 7 acres, nestled at the base of South Mountain.
Made of ... Stuff
Mystery Castle is located on the north side of South Mountain, near the site of what was then the town dump. Gulley used salvaged materials, auto parts, junk, and other artifacts he found in the Southwest and in Mexico in the building of his home. In this photo, you can see that he embedded actual petroglyphs in the wall. In one part of the house, you'll find some parts of his car built into the walls. In another, unusual glass blocks. On the floors, meaningful patterns of stones. There are 13 fireplaces in all. Outside, special bricks. I'm sure no two of those bricks are alike.
Running water? Electricity? Cable? Not until many years later.
Mystery Castle used to be a popular place to hold weddings, but in the mid-2000s Mary Lou Gulley decided that no more weddings would held here. This wedding altar is located in the chapel room.
Curiosities in Every Room
After his death, Gulley's wife and daughter were contacted by an attorney in Phoenix and notified about the house. They moved to Phoenix to live in it. Mary Lou Gulley was a teenager at the time.
You'll hear many different dates and time frames mentioned with respect to the events surrounding the Gulley family. All dates mentioned in the online tour of Mystery Castle were provided by Ms. Gulley.
The Rooms of Mystery Castle
Mystery Castle has 18 rooms and 13 fireplaces. Some items in the house have well-known names associated with them--original Frank Lloyd Wright furniture (yes, you can sit on the sofa), John Wayne items in the bar, and Barry Goldwater gave Mr. Gulley some furniture for the project.
You will also notice a lot of "stuff" in the house. Navajo baskets, pet rocks, dolls, cat statues, paintings, antiques, and more. Much of it was collected by Mary Lou during her years living at the house. Some of the items are (or were) quite valuable, some not so much. All of the items are exposed, and many tours have come through the house over the years, and so the decor has a tendency to look worn.
Taking a Tour
In this photograph, you can see some of the handmade bricks used to form the handrail.
Mary Lou Gulley's mother passed away in 1970. Mary Lou still lived in the castle that her father built until her passing in 2010.
There is a charge to see the house. Tour fees are charged to maintain the property and the house.
The tour takes about an hour, but after the guided tour you are welcome to wander around the house at your leisure. There's a lot to the story!
Sometimes there is one person on a tour and sometimes there are 40. When the tour is large, it is somewhat difficult to move around. Since they don't take reservations for tours, you never know who will show up. If you don't like crowds, your best bet, obviously, is to try and visit on a weekday instead of the weekend.
Last tip and this is important: the parking lot is unpaved, rocky and uneven. The house and the surrounding walkways are worse, with steep, uneven steps and walking surfaces that are not level. It is not wheelchair accessible, and people who have difficulty walking or with balance may find it uncomfortable.
You should also know that the only restroom is a porta-potty in the parking lot, and there is no water or any other food or beverage offered or sold here. You may bring your own water.
Boyce Gulley was not only creative, but had a definite sense of whimsy. In this photograph, you can see that he built a frame around the view of downtown Phoenix. Don't you wonder what Phoenix looked like when he built it? When he built the frame you could see all of Phoenix when you looked through.
Mystery Castle is open from early October to end of May. Call to check if it is open. Don't expect anyone to ever answer this phone or return your call if you leave a message.
Mystery Castle is located in South Phoenix, right near South Mountain. Mystery Castle has been designated as a Phoenix Point of Pride and is one of the more unusual attractions you'll find in the Phoenix area.
Mystery Castle Address
800 E. Mineral Road
Phoenix, AZ 85042
Directions to Mystery Castle
Take 7th Street south. About two miles south of Baseline Rd. you'll come to a roundabout. Drive around it to turn east (left) on Mineral Rd. The road dead ends in the parking lot. Parking is free.