June 04, 2018

Photo Essay: The Trash Castle Built Under Consumption

Photo: Michael and Sherry Martin (via Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

When you take a tour of the Mystery Castle in Phoenix, the narrative focuses mostly on Mary Lou Gulley, the woman who lived there until her death in 2010. She was even the centerpiece of the 1948 LIFE magazine article that coined the term "Mystery Castle."

But what intrigued—and disturbed—me most about the story of this "castle" built out of reclaimed materials (though I've seen plenty of those in my travels) was the story of its builder, Mary Lou's father, Boyce Luther Gulley.

Mr. Gulley was a family man living in Seattle when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis (a.k.a "consumption"). The diagnosis, in his mind, posed an ultimatum.

He could either stay with his family, possibly infecting them, and definitely subjecting them to witness his slow demise, or he could move to and quarantine himself in Arizona without word. Of course, he hoped to recuperate, but if he didn't, at least he would spare his family the infection.

He chose the latter.

But after spending some time in Arizona (as many tubercular patients did), he felt much better (as many also did)... one point hearing from his doctor that he was in full remission.

But instead of notifying his family with the good news...

...he settled down in Arizona...

...traveled to Mexico...

...bringing back various Aztec bric-a-brac and tiles that he'd collected there.

While in Arizona, Gulley scoured the local dump and factories for industrial waste to use as building materials, like slag glass and "clinker" bricks that had been overfired by the brickmaker.

The story goes that Gulley the father had promised his daughter Mary Lou when she was just five years old that one day he'd build her a castle—and so, supposedly, he was living up to his promise.

But his daughter and wife whom he'd abandoned had no clue he was alive and well 1500 miles away.

And for the 15 years that it took him to build Mary Lou's "castle" out of recycled and discarded materials, he didn't bother to tell them what he was up to.

That is, until he relapsed with a worse-than-ever bout of tuberculosis.

He ended up deeding the house to Mary Lou, who was notified after his death—and, while she and her mother at first wanted no part of it, they were sucked in by a clause that Daddy Gulley had included in the inheritance.

Mary Lou had to wait three years before she could open a trap door in the floor in a room called "Purgatory," situated between the "chapel" and the "dungeon" areas of the castle.

So, she lived there with three years with her mom and fell in love with the place.

It didn't take much convincing for her to stay and make it her own, once she'd opened the vault and found some cash and letters inside.

Besides, she'd already found coins and gold hidden in various places in the walls.

And after the notoriety she received after being profiled by LIFE, she began giving tours of the so-called "Mystery Castle" in 1948 and continued to do so until her death in 2010.

Now, thanks to a non-profit organization and volunteer docents, visitors can still see the furniture that Mr. Gulley had gotten from the "House of Joy" brothel in Jerome...

...and the cat pillows that Mary Lou had placed on top of them.

She had a cat pillow problem, in fact, compounded by her collection of "pet rocks"—also mostly painted like cats.

Did she forgive her father in the end? Or was she merely complicit in his deceit?

Perhaps she just made the most out of a bad situation, capitalizing on the little but of local celebrity status she could muster after having her heart shattered by an absentee father.

He had a choice. His family eventually found out he was still alive and wrote him letters. He never responded.

He built a playroom for his daughter in his castle, but didn't divulge its whereabouts until she was way too old to use it.

That makes it tough for me to celebrate his "artistry."

In my mind, he was just a selfish guy wit a pile of rocks.

And maybe that's why the tour doesn't focus too much on him.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Rubel's Castle, Glendora
Photo Essay: Nitt Witt Ridge, One Man's Castle

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