It’s possibly the most incongruous building in the Valley. Those who catch sight of its crenellated walls on the hill near the Loop 202 freeway don’t forget it, and just about everybody who’s passed through Phoenix in the last eight decades has seen the “wedding cake” mansion surround by its sentry of saguaros, and wondered ... What the heck is that?
Tovrea Castle is named for the cattle baron and meatpacking magnate who purchased the three-tiered structure from Alessio Carraro, its builder/creator, back in 1931—and it intertwines the histories of two quintessentially Arizona families.
Only a handful of locals saw the inside of the property prior to 2012, when the doors finally flew open to the public and the city showed off the meticulously restored hotel-turned-mansion. Taxpayers, smitten by the homegrown architectural curiosity, had rescued the property after a long period of decline. Rumors of dashed ambitions, family feuds and even murder have long shrouded the castle’s reputation, perhaps because it was off-limits for so long. The truth lies somewhere therein, and is no less fantastic than the fog of sensationalized exaggerations.
To 69-year-old Marie Cunningham, the castle is the place her entrepreneurial grandfather sold long before she was born, part of his dream to tempt home investors to the desert with a palatial bed-and-breakfast. As a little girl, she’d gaze longingly from the family car as it whizzed past.
“If only we could have kept it,” she’d sigh, “I’d be a princess. Think of all the boys I could meet.”
Over the years, Cunningham heard the family lore of how Carraro, an Italian native who’d already made a fortune in the sheet-metal business, had coaxed a castle from a solid granite foundation in the midst of desert outside the city limits. Working with his 14-year-old son and a skeleton crew, he’d scratch plans into the dirt with a stick each morning, following his inner muse.
A modern-day tour is “an opportunity to see a very unique style of building built with no blueprints by less than 20 men in less than 20 months because of a dream,” Cunningham says.
Today’s visitors are first taken via golf cart along the paths of the lush Carraro Cactus Gardens, replanted with 400 saguaros and 1,000 smaller cacti to recreate the spiky backdrop so vital to the original vision. Once inside the castle, guests stroll through the restored basement and first floor, believed to almost exactly emulate the original art nouveau design elements and flair of Italian theater artisans. Among highlights is the pulled-plaster ceiling in the basement, peaked like an inverted meringue pie.
The upper floors and crowning cupola are off-limits because they don’t meet code regulations, but an iPad in the foyer furnishes photos of the rooms as well as the 360-degree views afforded from the balconies above.
Carraro was not only a precursor to a modern-day subdivision developer, he was a recycler, incorporating maple floors, kitchen cabinets and even a bank vault salvaged from nearby teardowns and remodeling projects.
Before the resort opened, Carraro ended up selling the castle, his concept of a luxury subdivision unrealized. Stories swirl that he deserted the project after losing a bid to buy the 40-acre buffer between “Carraro Heights” and the adjacent, aromatic packing house and cattle pens, operated for the past decade by E.A. Tovrea.
In fact, it was Tovrea who bought the buffer as well as the castle, supposedly at the urging of his beautiful young wife, Della. Though her husband would die only a year after taking possession of his dome-topped new home, Della would live there until 1969. During the tour, visitors can still see the bullet hole in the ceiling where she discharged a warning shot during a home invasion that same year. She was tied up and badly beaten by the robbers, dying a few months later in a care facility.
Phil Tovrea III, the great-grandson of E.A. and his first wife, Lillian, says the castle represents an era of the Old West that goes beyond the hackneyed stereotype of “cowboys and Indians”—though E.A. faced both gun-wielding rustlers and Apache attacks during his rise in the beef industry.
“The butchers and ranchers and stockyard guys. Those are the people I consider responsible for the place still being here: my great grandfather, my grandfather, my father and uncle,” says Tovrea, who erected a pyramid onsite inscribed with their names. The pyramid stands on the property’s northern knoll in the exact spot E.A. had asked to be entombed in his will, a request that was not granted.
Varied accounts aside, the castle almost certainly wouldn’t have survived without the unlikely collision of an Italian real estate entrepreneur, a canny cattleman and his tenacious young wife. Phoenix has a long reputation for frantically tearing down the old in favor of the new. Had Della Tovrea not fallen in love with the property and perched there for decades, Carraro’s vision would likely exist nowhere today except on a faded postcard.
Carraro himself sold his creation for a tidy sum despite the Depression, and sprang onto other adventures that ranged from famed “water witch” to supervising state road development. The Tovrea sons continued to run the family business, employing thousands of Arizonans. Today, both Phil Tovrea and Marie Cunningham make time to donate their talents to Tovrea Castle and Carraro Heights, owned by the city of Phoenix but run entirely by volunteers.
From the visitor center at the base of the hill where she works as chair of operations, Cunningham reflects on her post-retirement role in a family legacy.
“When I go up there now, I feel really close to my dad and grandfather,” she says, and tears suddenly fill her eyes. “I get goose bumps when I talk about it. For such a long time it’s been here, and I’m helping to finally fulfill his dream.”