Offbeat Phoenix

By: Mark Sanders

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June 16, 2011

There's more to Phoenix than golf and resorts. Join us on an off-the-beaten-path tour of some of Phoenix's most fascinating sites.

About the author

Mark Sanders

Mark Sanders

Mark Sanders is a journalist and archaeologist. He currently lives in Florida and can be reached through his website,

Find the Mystery Castle at South Mountain Park

Winding through south Phoenix’s tidy neighborhoods, I was on a mission to know two things: just where and what, exactly, is the Mystery Castle? I couldn’t ask directions (that’d be too easy), so I drove around looking for a building weird enough to warrant that name. I finally found it, perched on a steep hillside in Phoenix’s South Mountain Park. I pulled into the gravel driveway, stopped and stared bewilderedly.

The castle is a mystery indeed, an 8,000-square-foot structure boasting 13 fireplaces and 18 rooms, built by an eccentric architect named Boyce Gulley for his daughter, Mary Lou.

The privately owned castle, where Mary Lou still lives, is made from rocks, bricks, old car parts and assorted junk that Mr. Gulley found nearby. His friend, Frank Lloyd Wright, even helped with some of the construction. Outside, the Mystery Castle resembles a real-life Dr. Seuss book, with mosaic-tiled multicolored patios, curved walls and a homemade doghouse. Inside, Mr. Gulley built a tavern, a wedding chapel, a wine cellar and, atop the house, a mother-in-law’s suite; all done by hand, all according to the ideas of one man.

The Mystery Castle is just one of Phoenix’s many odd charms. It may take a little investigating (and perhaps some driving around) to find them, but that’s part of the fun.

Explore The Hall of Flame

There is The Hall of Flame, a four-room building near Tempe that houses scores of old fire trucks, equipment and the National Firefighting Hall of Heroes. The fire trucks are impressive enough – included is one rig that Gene Autry salvaged and donated – yet it’s the old equipment, dating back to the 18th century, that’s most impressive.

The story goes that, as volunteer fire departments began forming just after the American Revolution, members began competing to see who could make the most elaborate rig. Items such as an 1870 parade carriage from Connecticut, with its oversized spoked wheels, interlaced metalwork and bass drum-like water tank, leaves visitors wondering, "What planet is this stuff from?"

Land your ship in a Cactus Garden at the Tovrea Castle

Another seemingly intergalactic charm is the Tovrea Castle. Tovrea’s “wedding cake” layout, with three tiers rising from a cactus-covered hillside, was the brainchild of sheet metal magnate Alessio Carraro. He envisioned the castle as a hotel, but abandoned the effort when his neighbor, E.A. Tovrea, built a meatpacking plant nearby. Carraro packed up and moved, leaving the castle in disrepair. Tovrea bought it, naming the castle for himself, but eventually left the building to fall apart until the 1990s, when the castle’s restorations began. Now owned by the city of Phoenix, Tovrea Castle (and its thriving cactus garden) is again testimony to Phoenix’s flair for the idealistic.

Visit a Pyramid at Papago Park

Phoenix holds other mysteries as well, such as the Deer Valley Rock Art Center (containing more than 1,000 examples of ancient rock art), Hunt’s Tomb (Arizona’s first governor’s final resting place, in the middle of boulder-covered Papago Park), and the Orpheum Theater (a fully restored, overwhelmingly detailed 1929 Spanish Baroque building).

Phoenix holds even more hidden treasures than this. All you have to do is get out of the mainstream a little bit to find them.

(Updated by the Arizona Office of Tourism - 2009)

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