Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Tovrea Castle

Architectural Folly
"An often extravagant pictureseque building erected to suit a fanciful taste" 
           Merriam Webster

Update August 2014
With the City budget on the mend 2 hour tours of the castle are being scheduled for 2015. Castle tours will be conducted twice each morning on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from January 9- June 28. The ticket prices are $15 Adult, $10 Children 2-12 and $13 Seniors, Military and Students. To secure tickets call 800-838-3006. You may also access by the web:  2015 Tickets 

Accessibility is available to individuals with walkers or in wheelchairs, but not mobility scooters. For any further details you may leave a message at: 602-256-3221 or email: 

Every big city has them; the orphans. They are the buildings that were built at the wrong time or were put in the wrong place. Some are just downright odd.

Frequently, they show up in extreme climates; the big heavy timber lodge high up in the mountains, or the house built by some hermit in a cave.

My home, the Sonoran desert, has always been a magnet for dreamers (sometimes even kooks) who came, spent time, money, and proceeded to build their dreams. 

After the dreamers move on, or die, the buildings (or fragments of buildings) they left whisper to everyone that passes that they have a story to tell.

In Phoenix we have a bunch of these architectural "folly's". There is the huge castle built by a rich dentist on south slope of Camelback Mountain. On South Mountain there is the "Mystery Castle" that Boyce Luther Gulley built in the 1930's as a giant "sand castle that you could live in" for his daughter (who lived in the house until her death in November 2010).

But two buildings I have seen almost every time I land at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix have always intrigued me. One is the lonely little decommissioned church sitting all by itself just west of the main runways. 

The other is the "Tovrea" Castle - the little wedding cake resting atop a hill just east of the main runways.

The Tovrea Castle

One place is sacred. The other is a folly.

To make way for airport expansions old portions of the neighborhood just west of the airport were torn down. Despite that, no one could bring themselves to tear down the little adobe church. The church, clearly an essential part of a neighborhood that is now long gone, is still loved. So much so that it is cleaned up by former neighbors and used once each year to celebrate Christmas.

The folly is the Tovrea Castle; the little plaster fantasy sitting atop a hill surrounded by seemingly zillions of saguaros.

I had always wondered about the castle. Well this week my questions were answered as the local architectural community was given a stem-to-stern tour of the castle. 

The tour was bittersweet. Although millions of dollars have been spent to rebuild the landmark and its amazing gardens, our current economic downturn prevents the City from finishing the project anytime soon. Further, City officials have had to announce that budget woes severely limit public tours of the renovated castle and gardens.

Cararro's Gardens Surrounding the Castle

So, for those like me, that have always wondered about it, here is the story of the "Tovrea" Castle. 

First off, it is misnamed. It should be named the "Carraro Castle" after its creator. It was built from 1928-1930 by an Italian immigrant named Alessio Carraro. Prior to his relocation to Phoenix, Carraro had made a small fortune selling sheet metal in San Francisco in the two decades following the great quake. 

Alessio, and his son Leo, came to Phoenix, purchased 277 acres, and took two years to build his dream resort in the desert. 

Carraro planned to welcome visitors to his hotel and then sell some of them homesites around the hotel. His timing could not have been worse. As the castle neared completion the adjacent land was developed by the Tovrea family into smelly feedlots and slaughterhouses. So the air quality on Cararro's property was awful. To make things worse the stock market crashed.

So instead of enjoying his dream hotel, Carraro wound up selling everything to a mystery buyer who came to San Francisco in 1931. Only after selling it did Carraro realize that the buyer was representing Della Tovrea (wife of the adjacent feedlot owner) who always fancied Carraro's castle.

Della (whose husband had recently died) moved into the castle, living in it seasonally for the next 38 years.

 Plans and Sections 

The Castle itself has three full stories above ground, a full walk-out basement below, and a domed lantern on top. It defies conventional structural design, with no continuous columns running through the building from floor to floor. Instead each floor was built independently (like a series of drums).

The building features wonderful light fixtures, a large ornamental fireplace (crowned with a medallion from Phoenix' treasured Orpheum Theater), gleaming hardwood floors, and a textured basement ceiling that can only be described as whipped cream.

The Whipped Cream Ceiling and Fireplace Medallion

Della's story (and life) came to a tragic end in 1969 when thieves put ladders on the side of the castle and entered through open windows upstairs. An aging Della who slept in the lower floors heard the intruders. She had a gun and shot a hole through the ceiling hoping to scare them off.

Main Level Wall Stencils

The Bullet Hole in the Ceiling

It was of no use, the burglars attacked and beat her so severely that she eventually died from her wounds. 

Blooming Reminders That Life Goes On

So as you pass the east end of the runway at Sky Harbor look a little to the north. A folly with a pretty amazing story awaits your discovery.   

Roadboy's Travels © 2010


IniquitousFish said...

You know, it's been a while since I've heard anyone talk so eloquently and humanely about a building.
Too frequently, people treat structures as though they have no soul or individuality when they obviously deserve better.

This post is beautiful, respectful, and enjoyable.

Naldoman said...

2013 - Resolution: Do Volunteer Work - I chose to do yard work in the cactus gardens of Tovrea.

I posted a gallery of photos on my FACEBOOK page, and also on my Real Estate blog:

Roadboy said...

Naldorman! You Go! See those resolutions through! For me it was joining Phoenix's Sunnyslope blight busters two years ago! So cool to work with such great high schoolers and neighbors!