Mystery Castle Tour in Phoenix, Arizona
A quirky, innovative house in south Phoenix, a castle promised to a daughter
(Last updated October 2022)
Boyce Luther Gully and his daughter Mary Lou built sand castles on the beach in Seattle in the 1920s. When sand washed the castles away, Mary Lou asked her father to someday build her a strong castle she could live in. When Gully was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1929, he left his wife and young daughter and came to Arizona. He acquired land in the south of Phoenix in the foothills of South Mountain and began building that castle. The rambling house was made mostly of recycled materials – salvaged items auto parts, junk, and other artifacts he found.
Gully did not die of tuberculosis as expected and lived for fifteen more years, during which time he continued to work on the house with occasional assistance from itinerant workers. He died of cancer in 1945. Mary Lou inherited the house and she and her mother moved to Arizona.
Mystery Castle is an 8,000 square foot, 3 story structure with 18 rooms and 13 fireplaces. It is filled with items collected by Boyce and his daughter. There are several patio areas.
Using salvaged materials did not stop Gully from including a number of innovations in his house. He didn’t like the idea of bending down to use the oven. He took the stove apart to create an eye-level oven. He used an inverted wash basin to create one of the first range hoods. The kitchen had two sinks – one to stand at, one to sit at. There was no running water or electricity in the house when he built it, but he anticipated both being available in the future. The kitchen floor included a drain to easily hose down the stone floor. Pipes were built into the ceilings for future electricity. The castle, however, did not get running water or electricity until the 1990s. By that time the pipes were too old and not up to current code. They could not be used for running electricity.
Mystery Castle sits at a slightly higher elevation than Phoenix and offers great views of the Phoenix valley below. Gully built a corner window in the kitchen to take advantage of that view. The patios face toward the valley as well.
Mystery Castle got its name when Life magazine did a feature on Mary Lou, the house, and her inheritance in 1948. The article was titled Life Visits a Mystery Castle.” After that, visitors would show up on her doorstep at all hours to see the house. In an effort to discourage them, Mary Lou and her mother posted a sign saying there was a charge for tours. They kept coming. Mary Lou quit her job in the city and supported herself by giving tours of her home until her death in 2010.
Although it would have been interesting to have Mary Lou give me the tour herself, my tour guides did a great job. They had history with the castle and with Mary Lou, and lots of stories to tell. The woman who did the upstairs tour had been giving tours for 30 years, working with Mary Lou. The woman who did the lower level tour was younger and had spent much time during her childhood at the castle. Her uncle had been the caretaker.
Mystery Castle is open for tours 11am to 3pm Thursdays through Sunday from October to May, except for major holidays. The fee is $10 for an adult and $5 for children aged 5 to 12. Guided tours are continuous and circular and run 30 to 45 minutes. You can join in at any time. When you’ve worked your way back to the starting point, you are free to wander around and explore on your own. Note that it is not wheelchair accessible and walkways are uneven. There are steep steps in places. The only toilet facility is a porta-potty in the parking lot.
Mystery Castle may not be a castle or much of a mystery anymore, but it is full of interesting details and fascinating stories. It makes for a fun visit.
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Wow, I think this pretty much is the very definition of the word quirky! But so interesting and such a testament of a father’s love for his daughter. I think that’s the best part!
Jacquie, it’s also a bit quirky that he built this house for her, but never went back to Seattle to see her.
I love these types of houses with all their eccentricities that reflect the utterly unique personalities who designed and built them. Obviously Boyce Gully loved his daughter very much and it seems that Mary Lou thrived in Phoenix in her castle. Her portrait shows a woman with style and a sense of humor and she’s a person I would have loved to meet. Great post, Donna! Anita
Thanks Anita. I too think it would have been fun to meet Mary Lou.
Interesting place, but I have to say, not to my taste. The person creating it had a lot of imagination though. Having said that he got his inspiration from European “hippie intellectuals” who thrive on decorating their houses that way and have done for a long time. So it wasn’t an original idea:-)
Catarina, I’m not sure it is to my taste either, although there were several spots that felt quite comfortable. It was interesting to see the materials he used and the use he made of them.
That is so cool and interesting. I could have spent hours wandering through there I’m sure. Looks like there is much to look at. Its funny that the dad loved away when he thought he was dying and left the girl, but then spent all that time building her a castle. I bet there is some interesting back story there. 🙂
Susan, there certainly was a lot to look at. I suspect there is more than one interesting backstory.
What a sad story. Did he want his wife and daughter to remember him the way he was? 15 years is a long time to be separated from your family.
I find the castle a little bit creepy.
Phoenicia, I really don’t know why he never saw his wife and daughter again. And yes, that is sad. I didn’t find the castle creepy, but it might have felt that way if I was alone there in the evening.
What an interesting castle! Thanks for sharing. The patio area photos are so detailed. I wonder how long it took to make them.
Sabrina, I believe he worked on the house for all of the 15 years he lived there, although I don’t know how long any one are took. The tile work, glass and mosaics on the patios are quite detailed.
What a strange place to discover in Arizona and an unusual but touching tribute to family love and dedication. I love that portrait of Mary Lou above the fireplace
Michele, the paintings and photos of Mary Lou in the house made me wish I’d had a chance to meet her.
We are in Phoenix a lot but have not visited this Castle! Thanks for giving us the armchair tour. Hopefully, I find the time to see it in person though. One thing I cannot understand: if the Castle were a testament to his love for his daughter, then why did he leave her?
Good question, Carol. I think I understand a little about why he left his wife and daughter. He expected to die soon and perhaps he didn’t want them to see that. He might also have been concerned about passing on tuberculosis to them. I have a harder time understanding why he didn’t return when the tuberculosis appeared to be healed. Perhaps he was still concerned about being contagious. Sometimes the longer one stays away, the harder it is to return. Perhaps, there is some completely other reason.
The idea of building a castle out of salvaged materials is really interesting. Also not that common to see a castle built in a desert. Must be a fascinating place.
Ken, you’d probably find it quite interesting to see what materials were used and how.
Fascinating Donna! I’ve never heard of the Mystery Castle but it looks like a place that I’d really enjoy, and as always your photos add to the story. Thanks for the tour and inspiration!
Glad you enjoyed the tour.
Wow! What a one-of-a-kind house with a simply fascinating history~
Irene, the history is certainly fascinating. Lots of stories in this house.
What an interesting, and quirky place. Another new thing that we had never heard about before. Hope to get to see it sometime.
I think Mystery Castle would appeal to your love of the quirky and bizarre.
We just added this to our Phoenix area list of things to see on our next trip there. What a truly quirky building! I wonder what the family story is behind them never living together again?
Rose Mary, definitely quirky. The family story is fascinating – I will have to find out more about it.
What a wonderful place. It is amazing you can find places like this all over the country. Even in my rural area, we have a castle not completed because his wife died before it could be finished.
Everyone of these places has its own story that needs to be told. Thanks for telling this one.
Thanks William. It is amazing the number of odd places with unusual stories behind their building one can find across the country. Another interesting one I visited decades ago is Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, built by the widow of gun magnate Winchester. She worked on the house for years and it has all kinds of odd additions and turns. She built staircases to nowhere and decoy rooms to confuse the spirits she believed haunted her family.
I love this – thanks for sharing! Who’d’ve thought: a castle in the desert! I only thought castles existed in the ancient areas of Europe…it’s refreshing to read about Mystery Castle. I hope I get to visit one day. And those shoes! Heaven…
Thanks Bex. Glad you enjoyed the post.
Mystery castle has such a colorful history. Mary Lou being able to quit her job to give tours of her home is the very definition of opportunity knocking on your door. Thanks for bringing my attention to another great piece of history that I didn’t know existed.
Erica, a colourful history and a lot of colour in the home as well.