One Wacky Western Landmark

For years, whenever I traveled on the 202 freeway loop and saw a strange wedding cake shaped structure in the distance I wondered about it. Then the gardener saw a program on TV where the place was identified as Tovrea Castle at Carraro Heights. I googled the castle and discovered that there were tours of the property. When we decided we wanted to go check it out, I found that I needed to book the tour many months in advance. So about nine months ago I bought the $15 tickets for two. In the amount of time it takes to develop a full human baby, the gardener and I finally were allowed to visit and learn about Tovrea Castle.

Our tour group traveled across the property and up to the castle in two golf carts driven by our two orange-attired docents, each named Nancy. I’m not sure if the tour guides have to be called Nancy or if it was a coincidence they were both named Nancy. (OK, I’m kidding).

The castle and acreage are now in the middle of the city with industrial and commercial zoning all around. It’s not far from Sky Harbor Airport either, and I saw several planes overhead. Other people on my tour saw roadrunners, squirrels, and a jackrabbit with big ears, but I didn’t catch a glimpse of anything with a heartbeat outside of our tour.

What looked like a castle from afar actually wasn’t that large up close. The entire building is about 5,000 square feet, and that includes the basement, which is the largest floor. The second and third floors have small hotel rooms. We were not allowed to go up there, but were told that there is only one bathroom per floor. On a 360 degree iPad tour, the rooms looked quite nice and ready for move in. I might call the architectural style cheesy, but maybe I just don’t appreciate it properly. The light fixtures and other accessories were all in the art deco style, which is definitely a style I like very much.

The castle is painted in its original colors. The front door was remarkable for its plainness. From every floor of the building it is possible to get a 360 degree view of Phoenix.

The bannister is made of terrazo and the columns marble. Terrazo is a compound of granite and concrete.

Before the castle was ever built, F.L. and Lizzie Warner established a homestead on 160 acres in 1907. They built their house (no longer in existence) on a rocky knoll, overlooking . . . desert. Scrub is what I call it. Eventually they added to their property and when Lizzie (after F.L. died) sold the property to Alessio Carraro in 1928 there was a total of 277 acres.

Carraro was an Italian immigrant who made a fortune in the sheet metal business in San Francisco. In 1928 he moved to Arizona, wanting to develop a desert resort and luxury housing subdivision. The “castle” was built as a hotel and completed in 1930. Because of the Great Depression, Carraro had to sell the property in 1931 at a great loss to get cash. Maybe he also sold because his wife refused to move to the desert. Or maybe it was another reason . . . .

While Carraro owned the property, a lot of construction was completed. He hired a Russian gardener, called Mokta, who built an enormous cactus garden. The garden still exists, in a way, but some of the sahuaros (the sentinels of the Sonoran Desert) are dead or dying, and it does not look as rich and thickly planted as shown in the old photographs. What my gardener noticed (that was not mentioned by the tour guides) was that in the old days the property was completely irrigated, whereas today it is not. Even sahuaros need some water, I guess.

Mokta, Carraro, and Carraro’s son Leo planted over 500 species of cactus and lined the property with white river rock from the Salt River. They also created two concrete-lined pools, a horseshoe area, and a game court (for a game that was a combination of bocce and pool).

At this point, the history of Carraro and the “castle” meets the history of the Tovrea family.

Edward Ambrose (“E.A.”) Tovrea was born in Illinois in 1861 and moved to Kansas at the age of 10 where he worked on a cattle ranch. He started a freight company that transported goods between western states and eventually settled in Arizona where he built and owned butcher shops throughout the state, founding the Arizona Packing Company, later known as the Tovrea Packing Company.

In 1931, E.A. and his second wife, Della, purchased the castle with 44 acres from Alessio Carraro. Now this is not part of the official story, but I found it online and maybe it’s the real reason Carrara had to sell the property:

Carraro’s dream of a resort hotel and a subdivision of fine homes ended a few months later. For some time, Carraro had tried unsuccessfully to buy 40 acres adjacent to his land that would serve as an important buffer between his property and a stockyard and meat packing plant. When the acreage finally was sold, it went not to Carraro, but to the owner of the nearby packing company E. A. Tovrea.

Tovrea promptly put up sheep pens on the land. That was it for Carraro, who figured few people would be interested in buying a nice home next to a flock of sheep. In June, 1931, Carraro accepted an offer from a real estate agent for the hotel and much of the property. Unknown to him was that the buyer was Della Tovrea.

What rotten luck. I’ve seen photos of the descendents of Carrara and Tovrea together in a friendly manner, but this must have been such a blow to Carrara.

That stockyard came to be part of the Tovrea Stockyards. Can you imagine the smell in the heat of the summer?

E.A. passed away within a year, leaving behind a son who took over the family businesses. Della Tovrea resided in the castle until her death in 1969. During the time the property was owned by the Tovreas, features added to the gardens include a large concrete patio just east of the castle, a rose garden, an aviary, and a reflecting pool. The pool reflected an enormous sahuaro. The sahuaro is now a skeleton only 1/3 its original height.

There are a lot of small outbuildings on the property, but most are completely falling apart.  The well house is one of the few that still stands. You can see it below.

Near the well house is the dovecote which is completely fallen apart. The dovecote was to keep pigeons to feed the many workers.

Another outbuilding was a little kennel for the dogs. It was just a large free-standing cage. The guide explained that this was built for the protection of the dogs because of the dangerous predators in the area. Hello! So the dogs are inside this cage the size of a small bathroom and the bobcats, mountain lions, javelina, coyotes, and God knows what else, are LUNGING at them from the outside. How many dogs ended up with heart attacks?!

Della Tovrea was a very important person in the Arizona Democratic Party and the only woman representative for Arizona at the 1936 convention.  In her later years, she began sleeping in the kitchen. I have no idea why she slept in the kitchen. She had developed a fear of being locked in her huge bank-type vault in the basement by burglars and had had the lock disabled. One night while she slept just feet away from her beautiful blue kitchen sink two burglars did break in and force her to take them around the house pointing out the valuables. There are two different stories about how a bullet hole was made in the kitchen ceiling that night. In one version, a burglar shot his gun. In another version, it was Della herself and her old Colt. When the men left in their pink Cadillac (no relation to Mary Kay or Elvis, to my knowledge), she had no way (in 1969!) to contact the police or the caretakers who lived in a cottage on the grounds and had to make her way to their house in the pouring rain. She died two months later, possibly of pneumonia.

The cast of characters in the story of Tovrea Castle would make for a picaresque novel, to be sure, and I think Della was the greatest piece of work of all. I have a soft spot, though, for Carrara who was a dreamer who repurposed creatively (the blue sink might have come from elsewhere, as did the maple floors and other features of the building and grounds). He took risks and couldn’t withstand the machinations of “bottom line Tovrea,” as I like to think of him.

Today the basement is a tiny museum of Carraro Heights. The ceiling is the bird’s nest style (with hidden eggs throughout). And there are tunnels leading outside.

The Boy Scouts made and installed green ladder stairs around the property. These are views far away and up close.

In 1993, the Castle and the 44 acre Cactus Gardens were purchased from the Tovrea Family Estate by the City of Phoenix which now maintains the National Register of Historic Places property and runs the tours. But at some point somebody else must have run tours here because in the basement there is an old sign.

When I asked why it’s necessary to buy tickets so many months in advance, the tour guides explained to me that they don’t have enough docents. I’d almost swear the one lady looked at me pointedly and hopefully at that moment.

The thing is that while the combination of history and garden and architecture was great fun for both the gardener and me, the desert leaves me cold (you know what I mean). I can’t blame Carrara’s wife for not budging from San Francisco. Are you KIDDING me? What was he thinking? We probably lucked out and got the last beautiful weather for the next three months or so. From now on it will be HOT.

On the other hand, plenty of people love the desert. Identify yourself right now!

And, like Tevye (I like musical theatre references), I can always repeat on the other hand: have you ever seen a bluer sky than ours?


Filed under #writerlife, Essay, Flora, Garden, and Landscape, History, Liminality, Sightseeing & Travel, Writing

35 responses to “One Wacky Western Landmark

  1. Bluer skies? Perhaps I’ve seen some bluer up here in winter. But I have never seen a bluer sink!
    Fascinating read, thank you!

  2. Such interesting insight into the history of the property and of the area!
    I can’t believe you had to book tickets that far in advance!!

    • It felt a little surreal. I couldn’t figure out why I had to wait so long, but after I asked the guides I felt as if I had walked into a trap and that they were looking for docents :)! Hahaha

  3. Loved the photos and story of this castle and kingdom.

  4. A fascinating tour Luanne, with a history that is intriguing enough to stand against such an unusual building.

    • I’m sure the story and its characters are the most interesting part of the whole “museum.” Maybe Derrick is right. A novel needs to be written about these people!

  5. What a twisted tale!

    • Isn’t it?! And look at how it’s all water under the bridge now (which is obviously not a pun since we’re talking desert ;)).

  6. I was just reading about New Mexico on another blog and said I really have to get there someday. Now I need to add Arizona to the list. Such interesting geography and architecture, and this place looks incredible. Great pics.

    • You do not want to miss Arizona! It has a very diverse geography and weather because northern tends to be mountainous with cold and lots of snow and southern is obviously desert. Lots to do and see here!

  7. Incredible images and fabulous story, Luanne! Pretty and I would have loved to wander through this place, too.

  8. Interesting tour. I agree about that sink–beautiful!
    I wouldn’t want to live out there either.
    Perhaps he had dreamed about this for a long time, and like Tevye, he thought, “If I Were a Rich Man. . .” 😉

    • Can you believe that the gardener thinks that sink is very unattractive? I can’t figure out why he doesn’t like it unless the color is too bold or too blue for him? Haha, actually he WAS a rich man, but maybe not rich enough or Tovrea wouldn’t have s****ed him. 🙂

  9. Great tour, Luanne. Amazing history.

  10. Excellent tour, Luanne! I enjoyed all of your pictures. As for the blue sky, there’s nothing better than the expansive Arizona skies!

  11. Pretty place, lovely photos! I love the sink and the door! 🙂

  12. Fascinating, chequered, history. Who knows, maybe you’ll write the novel.

  13. To me the place seems a bit creepy, but I enjoyed following along with you.

    • LOL! Actually the place didn’t have a lot of creep vibes in person. It was more desolate, a little sad, and infinitely wacky. And a testament to the originality of the characters involved.

  14. Ah, Luanne, you are SUCH a great storyteller. I was admiring all the saguaros (and barrel cacti) in your photos until you mentioned they are not in great shape. 🙂 Thank you for a lovely virtual tour!

    • Theresa, hah, thank you so much! What a nice compliment. Yes, many were in good shape, but seeing some of the ones that weren’t is a sad experience. Saguaros are powerful, like trees and elephants, and I have a poem I wrote after seeing one hauled down the street on the back of a truck. That was traumatic.

  15. Della Tovrea is interesting and the story would be fascinating in more depth, Luanne. Her “ending” is so sad, are you saying no landline phones?

    I like the style of the building, the royal blue sink and the tunnel with bird’s nest ceiling, with egg (to my eyes) scoops out of the material.

    The other tourists’ reports of living animals around the “castle” was intriguing. Luanne, this was a unique tourist attraction! xo

    • No landlines. Did you hear on the news that they plan to try to get rid of landlines altogether? Although I know a lot of people no longer have them, I rely on them for business and I am worried that if something catastrophic happens and we lose satellites we will have NOTHING for communication.

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