The 1930s Boyce Gulley Mystery Castle Built From Found Materials in Phoenix Arizona

Mystery Castle South Mountain Phoenix AZ

Mystery Castle South Mountain Phoenix Arizona
Mystery Castle South Mountain Phoenix Arizona | Source

A Castle For His Princess

Boyce Luther Gulley was born in Issard County Arkansas, and he always dreamed of becoming an architect. But by the 1920s, Boyce found himself living in the small town of Wenatchee, Washington and selling shoes. He had married Fran Bradfor, settled in Seattle, Washington and had a daughter, Mary Lou. Like most little girls, Mary Lou loved stories of princesses and the castles that they lived in. Boyce read the stories of Hans Christian Anderson to her, and made himself a promise that someday he would build her a castle to live in.

In 1929, Boyce was sick from tuberculosis but according to some accounts he didn't want to burden his family with his disease or to be placed into a sanatorium, so Boyce left his family, and finally settled in Phoenix, Arizona in the hot dry desert. In his infrequent letters to Fran and Mary Lou, he told them he was building a home for them, but that the house did not have running water or electricity yet. He supported himself by selling shoes. His letters stopped coming and Fran and Mary Lou assumed that Boyce had died. A letter arrived from an Arizona lawyer informing them that Boyce had died in 1945, and that they had inherited an eight thousand square foot home which Boyce had called his castle for Mary Lou set on eight acres in the South Mountain area of Phoenix.

Although the house still did not have electricity or running water, Boyce had asked them in his will to live in the home for two years and at the end of two years, they could open a mysterious trapdoor which would reveal a secret surprise he had for them. The second part of the will was that if at the end of the two years they didn't want to continue to live there, they were free to sell the property and leave.

TeePee Dog House Mystery Castle

An Original Recycler

Mary Lou said that at first she and her mother had difficulty finding the castle, and admitted that at first it was extremely difficult hauling water, using an outhouse and lighting and heating with kerosene, but indeed they did love living in the unusual castle.

The castle was built of stones, adobe, railroad ties, recycled metals including old auto parts, cement, discarded bricks, discarded wood, discarded Mexican tiles and glass bits and bottles. In all, the castle has 18 rooms on several levels, 13 fireplaces, a dungeon and a dog house shaped like a tee pee. Boyce's imagination and ingenuity led him to create "snakes" from lines of stones, a sunken saloon, window frames made from wheels, a room built around a cactus that had been struck by lightening, a fireplace mantle from natural copper, a bed on rails, kitchen windows from recycled glass from the old Escalante railroad depot, and many other curious features. Word spread about the castle and soon people visited hoping for a look inside, so Mary Lou and Fran began charging $1 per visitor for a tour. Of course some people came to trespass and to steal chunks of the home.

What of the mysterious suprise behind the trap door that Boyce had left for his family? On New Year's Eve in 1947, Mary Lou and her mother could legally open the trap door. Mary Lou had contacted the editor of Life Magazine to cover the revealing. As the reporter from the magazine stood by, the trap door was opened and inside was a large manila envelope. A letter from Boyce said that he had hoped that by now they had come to love the castle and the Arizona desert as much as he had. Also in the envelope was a wallet that Fran had once given him that contained two $500 bills, and a Valentine that Mary Lou had given him as a child. The reporter's story ran in the January 26th, 1948 edition of Life and people from all over the world began arriving for tours of the unusual home in the desert. Eventually, Mary Lou added a bathroom, space heaters and a parking lot. But only the private quarters had air conditioning and heating, so tours are only given in the months of October-June. Mary Lou wrote a book about her life in the castle titled My Mystery Castle in 1952. She continued to give tours until her failing health forced her to be available for questions during limited times, and Mary Lou passed in November of 2010.

One long term story about the castle is that Frank Lloyd Wright visited and donated a couch, I've never seen a confirmation of this story, but perhaps it's true, since Wright was at his home and studio Taliesin West at the other end of metro Phoenix during this time period. Questions always linger about why Boyce never again visited or had his family visit him for so many years. Today, we would judge Boyce as an early dead-beat Dad, but we'd have to judge him through the eyes of one who lived during the Great Depression years. Also, I always question what makes some people love this odd home so much that they continue to come on repeat visits, while others see only "a pile of junk." While I personally love the Mystery Castle as very inventive, I could do without all the stuffed animals sitting around that Mary Lou collected, but then that was part of her history. The Phoenix Pride Commission saw enough merit to award the Phoenix Mystery Castle as a "Phoenix Point of Pride."

To visit, the Mystery Castle is located at 800 E Mineral Road, Phoenix Arizona 602-268-1581 and the last admission price for 2011 was listed as $10 per visitor and open Thurs-Sunday from 11-3 Oct.-May.


Built from Materials Found in the AZ Desert

Phoenix Arizona History

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Comments 2 comments

That Grrl profile image

That Grrl 4 years ago from Barrie, Ontario, Canada

Thanks for writing about this. I like reading about unusual buildings, especially something still standing. I've linked to this post in my urbex feeds on Snip.it and Scoop.it.


mactavers profile image

mactavers 4 years ago Author

It's really an unusual house to see and in pretty good condition considering the materials and the fact that Mary Lou didn't really change much after moving in. The new owners have not seemed to make any changes either. Thanks for your comment.

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