The Mystery Castle


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Mary Lou Gulley was a child when her father disappeared in 1929 leaving her alone with her mother in Seattle, Washington. Years later, she learned where he had been, why he left and what he’d been up to. He built a castle at the base of South Mountain in Phoenix – A Mystery Castle that has been Mary Lou’s home since the 1940’s.


Narrator: Downtown Phoenix, from the foothills of South Mountain. The view has changed quite a bit since the 1930s, when these bricks, rocks, and relics were shaped into a fanciful fortress. It's a labor of love, 15 years in the making, a castle clouded in mystery.

Mary Lou Gulley: We didn't really know what it was all about. Of course, I was just a kid. I didn't know anything, really.

Narrator: Mary Lou Gulley's childhood was one of sand castles and magical places far, far away.

Mary Lou Gulley: I loved castles when I was – I liked to be a fairy princess.

Narrator: As she got older, her imaginary world became a real-life fairy tale.

Mary Lou Gulley: "From the beginning, life to me was like an enchanted fairy tale."

Narrator: She wrote about her life in My Mystery Castle, a book published in 1952.
It's the story of her father, Boyce Luther Gulley, and a promise he made.

Mary Lou Gulley: Well, he promised he'd build me a castle someday.

Narrator: He promised his princess a castle, and then he disappeared, leaving Mary Lou and her mother Frances behind in Seattle. Where he was and why he abandoned his family was a mystery for many years. Then Boyce finally got in touch. He was living in Arizona, and Mary Lou, now a young woman, was looking forward to a reunion with her father.

Mary Lou Gulley: "And then the telegram came. 'Boyce died today. Stop. No need for you to come.' How appropriate, that word stop. Everything did stop: dreams, hopes, and time."

Narrator: Mary Lou's world stood still for a moment. Then life started flying at her fast: news that Boyce died of cancer, that he left all those years ago after discovering he had tuberculosis. Not wanting to expose his daughter to the disease, he moved to Arizona, where the warm, dry climate was believed to be a cure. 1945, the year Boyce died, Mary Lou and her mother came to Arizona to see what he'd been up to the last 15 years.

Mary Lou Gulley: I didn't really want to come, but she convinced me. And I walked in here and I couldn't believe it. "Oh, my God, I've got a castle."

Narrator: It was a father's gift to his daughter, though not exactly the castle she'd imagined as a child.

Mary Lou Gulley: Well, not really, but in a way, it kind of was. Because I kind of -- there's something different about it. All castles look the same. They're kind of, you know. But this one wasn't boring. This was different.

Narrator: Eighteen fireplaces and thirteen rooms. Slithering snakes of stone and a mysterious door in the floor. It's a castle unlike any other, an unconventional sculpture of treasures and trash, obviously designed by an artist, now a home for the family he started once upon a time.

Mary Lou Gulley: Animals would whoosh in front of us and things like that, and coyotes howling in the distance and big rattlesnakes there, and, "Oh, my God, we're in hell." That's what I told my mother. So she said, "No, we're not. You'll be surprised."

Narrator: Castle life was heavenly at times, but it was also difficult for two women
living in the desert without electric lights or running water.

Mary Lou Gulley: We had to haul the water. Finally we got electric, and then, you know -- then we got along much better then.

Narrator: They got used to the critters that shared their castle, but never the people who
coveted their land.

Mary Lou Gulley: And they wanted to get the property. I don't think they cared too much about the castle, but they wanted the property. They tried to do all kinds of things to scare us off. You should see the things we've gone through.

Narrator: Through the years, they had to fight to keep their property, and they struggled to make a living. They started giving tours of the castle, but business was slow, so Mary Lou's mother went to LIFE Magazine, hoping for a little publicity.

Mary Lou Gulley: It was on Friday, January 26, 1948, that we made it. I turned the page, and there it was, "LIFE visits a Mystery Castle."

Narrator: The five-page spread was full of intriguing photos.

Mary Lou Gulley: That was scary, I’ll tell you, that one was. Now, here's this is how Phoenix looked in the background. There's no Phoenix there practically. Down here is the organ that they used to play during the Weddings.

Narrator: The article was a big boost for business. It brought worldwide attention and a greater demand for tours.

Mary Lou Gulley: That's what caused it. This was our fame, right in this. We owe a great gratitude to LIFE Magazine.

Narrator: The visitors just kept on coming, allowing Mary Lou to remain queen of her castle and spend her happily ever after in the house her father built.