Searching for Clues in a Mystery Castle
I pulled up the trap door and peered down into the darkness. Two years had passed since I agreed to live in this magical place, under one condition: I was not to open this door until Jan. 1, 1948. Anticipation flowed through me as I descended 9 feet to the bottom of the pit. I crouched down to discover gold and cash, along with a letter from my father and a photo of him. Amidst the excitement I almost missed a scraggly little piece of paper, a valentine I made when I was a young girl. I think my father hoped the trap door would make mom and me stay long enough to fall in love with this place. If he were here today, I would tell him that it worked.
My name is Emily Huddleston and I had the pleasure of touring the Mystery Castle a few weeks ago. It was a magical place filled with beautiful architecture and intriguing stories. It’s one of those places that seems more like fiction than real life. I decided it would be fun to think about this story from Mary Lou’s perspective (the woman who lived in the Mystery Castle). It must have been quite the adventure for her. So join me while I to combine a bit of imagination with a whole lot of fact and tell this tale from behind Mary Lou’s eyes.
My name is Mary Lou Gulley and my father was Boyce Gulley. He was a man who kept to himself, never one to share much with mother and me. It was 1927 and it was an unusually cold day in Seattle, the kind of day that makes you feel a bit weary. I remember waiting by the fire for father to come home; I wanted him to read with me before bed. I waited by that fire for what must have been hours. The next morning came and went and the morning after that. I never saw my father again.
Fifteen years passed and we assumed my father died. In 1945 we received unexpected word from a lawyer that he had died from cancer and had left behind an inheritance for mother and me. However, we were told we must make our way down to Phoenix to see it for ourselves. Mother was hesitant; she wanted nothing to do with this man. He left her alone to raise me and she decided nothing could be done to make up for the lost time. I was 19 years old now and he had missed too much she said. But I was persistent. I begged and pleaded with mother and finally we arrived in Phoenix.
Upon arriving, we were told my father built us a new home in the middle of the desert. The shock began to settle in. This entire time we believed my father was dead and instead he spent the last years of his life in the desert building a house! As we approached the structure I realized this was not just any home, this was a castle. My jaw hung open and my eyes peered into the sky. I remember thinking, “Father built this? He built this for us?” It was extravagant and unlike anything I had ever seen. There were so many rooms I was unsure what to do in all of them. My favorite room is the denim room. Father lined the ceiling and walls with old jeans, making curtains and wallpaper from them. Life has definitely been flipped upside down since the day I learned of the castle and I intend to spend the rest of my days exploring every inch of it.
In 1927 Boyce was diagnosed with Tuberculosis with only six months to live. He decided instead of upsetting his family he would leave their home in Seattle and he made his way to the desert of Phoenix, Arizona. During Boyce’s life many patients with tuberculosis moved to Arizona to recover. There were many sanatoriums in the area and it was thought that open air and sunlight could cure the disease.
I knew he had little money because when I look around I can tell he used anything and everything to put this castle together. I ran my hands against walls made of stones and river rocks. I saw old railroad ties and discarded metals. I peered through windows made of old glass dishes. I noticed wagon wheels, train rails and telephone poles as I ran up the front steps. He must have loved distorted bricks, they were called clinkers in my father’s day, the rejects from the kiln. I found these all over the place.
I’ve been living here a few years now and every now and then I discover new treasures in nooks and crannies that I hadn’t noticed before. I’ve been sharing my home with others, giving tours and such. I want the world to know Boyce Gulley’s legacy; plus this gigantic castle can be lonely.
Sometimes when I sit by the fire, there is this memory I have that fades in and out. I must have been very young. Father and I were making sand castles on the beach. We used to spend hours doing this because the tides rolled in and always washed my work away. I remember begging my father to build me a big strong castle one day that wouldn’t fall down, one I could live in.
I guess he did just that.
In 1945 Life magazine published an article about the Gulley family that was titled, “Life Visits a Mystery Castle: A Young Girl Rules Over the Strange Secrets of a Fairy-Tale Dream House Built on the Arizona Desert.” The name “Mystery Castle” stuck and has been referred to as such ever since.
After the article was published, the public flocked to the castle and amidst the excitement, Mary Lou and her mother began offering tours of their home.
The 8,000 square foot home contains 18 rooms, 13 fire places and sits on 8 acres of land at the bottom of South Mountain in Phoenix, Arizona. It is a bit overwhelming. Every room is carefully decorated and I could have spent days wandering around the home and still wouldn’t have noticed everything. While it was a sight to see, the part of this castle that intrigued me the most were the stories.
Almost every room and object in the castle had a tale. The chapel contained my favorite group of stories. Mary Lou frequently held weddings in her home and the last wedding took place about 17 years ago. Tucked away in a corner of the room, is a shelf covered from top to bottom in shoes. Mary Lou asked that each bride leave one of their shoes on the shelf after they were married: “If the bride leaves a shoe, forever will the groom be true.” And now a little piece of each bride will forever be remembered in the home. Also in the chapel sits a frighteningly old organ that was purchased in Tombstone, Arizona. The previous owner of the organ was known as the Chocolate Widow. This woman married several times and all of her husbands were mine workers. When the Chocolate Widow eventually became tired of one of her husbands she would bake them a chocolate cake, lace it with cyanide and that would be that. Back then it wasn’t uncommon for miners to be exposed to that type of poison in the mines and die, so no one thought much of the deaths. She would collect each of her husband’s fortune, give a portion of it to the church and the people of the church saw her as a very kind and giving woman. Mary Lou was fascinated by this tale and bought the organ for herself.
Like the organ, many other objects in the home have their own stories. In one of the downstairs living spaces, an old and large saguaro cactus occupies the corner of the room. When Boyce was building the castle this very annoying cactus was blocking his way. So instead of doing away with the thing, he built around it and it still thrives amongst couches and chairs with a slight adjustment, it is covered with Christmas lights.
Before I left the tour we visited the room that started it all: the main living room. Atop one of the fireplaces, a large portrait of Mary Lou welcomes you into the room. This fireplace was the first piece of the castle that was built and Boyce continued the home from here. Lining the bottom of the fireplace sits many pet rocks. But these rocks aren’t just any pet rocks, they are shaped and painted by Mary Lou’s friend to resemble actual animals. Their realistic features definitely took me by surprise.
The last of my favorite items sits on a shelf in the corner of the room: the architecture books Boyce used to learn how to build the castle. These were fascinating to me because the words in those books helped Boyce create this masterpiece. And I thought it was lovely that they didn’t sit in a protective case but instead remain on the bottom of a bookshelf amongst the rest of Mary Lou’s belongings.
Mary Lou’s mother, Frances Gulley died in 1970. Mary Lou continued to call the castle home and share it with visitors. After spending most of her life in the castle, Mary Lou passed away in 2010. Mary Lou’s dying wish was that the castle remain open to the public so all can explore its wonders.
Visiting the Mystery Castle:
Admission: $10 for adults and $5 for children ages 5-15
Hours: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Open from October through May
Thursday through Sunday only
Phone: (602) 268-1581
Address: 800 East Mineral Road, Phoenix, Ariz., 85042
"Mystery Castle - History of the Mystery." N.p., n.d. Web. 03 June 2015.
Olsen, Grant. "Unlocking the Strange Secrets of Arizona’s 'Mystery Castle' | KSL.com." Unlocking the Strange Secrets of Arizona’s 'Mystery Castle' | KSL.com. N.p., Jan. 2013. Web. 03 June 2015.
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