Castle in the air

Tovrea landmark evolves in cactus tableau

The Biltmore. The Wigwam. The Castle. That's right, the Castle. Had it not been for a man and his sheep, the Castle - now known as Tovrea Castle - just might have been counted among the area's stately winter resort hotels.

Italian immigrant and San Francisco businessman Alessio Carraro had hoped to develop a prestigious resort when he purchased 277 aces of rugged desert land east of Phoenix in 1928. He saw great potential in the property, which offered beautiful mountain views and fronted the main route from the city to what was once the popular Papago Saguaro National Monument.

Carraro's plan for the land was to build a hotel and use it as the center piece of a first-class residential development that would be called "Carraro Heights." The hotel, he figured, would provide him a steady flow of potential home buyers.

The hotel, which took the shape of a three-tier castle, was built without any specific plans. Two granite knolls were leveled with dynamite and a third was blasted open to form the bed for the basement. Much of the granite was crushed and made into concrete blocks for the foundation. The building was framed with wood and covered with stucco sheathing.

Inside, Carraro went for many recycled materials. The maple flooring throughout the hotel came from a house in Phoenix that was being razed. The kitchen cabinets were made from mahogany and oak salvaged from the Phoenix National Bank, which was being remodeled. And, a vault from the bank was turned into a basement wine cellar.

Outside, Carraro had developed a spacious desert garden, filled with more than 300 varieties of desert plants.

The hotel was just about finished as the 1930 Christmas season approached. Carraro celebrated by installing 1,000 red, green, yellow and blue lights on the split-rail fence that surrounded the property and topping the arched gateway with a 10-foot electric tree. The display won The Arizona Republic's holiday decorations contest and the newspaper called the entry a "brilliantly lighted castle in the desert." It was the first time the building was publicly referred to as a castle, a label that would last to this day.

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, the wife of the packing company owner. Would it have made any difference had he known the name of the buyer? No one knows.

The Tovreas turned the hotel into their home and moved in before the end of the year. The following year, E.A. died. Della later married William Stuart, publisher of the Prescott Courier, and they lived in the home until his death in 1960. Della stayed on until her death in 1969.

Today, the interior of the castle is virtually as Carraro constructed it. It appears to be marred only by areas of deterioration from water damage, vandalism and, in some cases, the removal of small items such as door handles. The exterior, too, is generally intact, but suffers from years of neglect. Most of the window sashes have been replaced with single pane reflective glass and two additional layers of stucco surfacing have been applied to the original walls.

The development plans for the castle include a fully restored first floor that would illustrate how each room would have been used as a hotel and how it actually was used as a home. Historical artifacts would be obtained as they are located. And, there would be tours and exhibits for visitors.

For nearly 70 years now, the grand Tovrea Castle has stood out among the community's historical and architectural wonders.Thousands have admired it from afar, awed by the imposing picture it forms atop a small desert hill in the heart of an urban setting. Few, however, have been beyond its fenced surroundings and permitted inside its granite walls.

The city of Phoenix, which acquired the landmark and some of its adjacent property in 1993, is hoping to change that with an exciting plan to open the three-tiered castle and the sprawling Carraro Cactus Gardens that surround it to the public.

Work to restore two of the historic garden sections at the Tovrea Castle will begin August 1999. Restoration will transform one of the sections to the Carraro era with its dense cactus plantings and varied species. The other garden area will be restored to the Tovrea area featuring a reflecting pool, patio and formal garden.

The garden restoration work is expected to be completed in November of 1999. Exterior restoration of the Castle itself should begin shortly thereafter and is estimated to take one year to complete.The ambitious plan, developed by the city's Historic Preservation Office and Parks, Recreation and Library Department, includes three key elements -- the purchase of as much of the 43-acre compound as possible, the restoration of the castle and the redevelopment of the gardens.Alessio Carraro, an Italian immigrant and San Francisco businessman , saw great potential for development and tourism in 1928 when he visited the area east of Phoenix in search of a business venture. The road to the Papago Saguaro National Monument and beyond to Tempe offered spectacular mountain views.

Carraro pictured rows of fashionable homes along the route. It was a vision that led him to purchase 277 acres of desert land in the area for a housing subdivision. The centerpiece of the development would be a hotel surrounded by acres of desert plants, shade trees and ponds.

Work began immediately. The three granite knolls were blasted away, creating a hole for the basement. The granite was crushed and turned into concrete blocks for construction. Inside, many recycled materials , including a bank vault, were used.

Carraro's dream died, though, when he was unable to purchase all of the land needed for his project. He sold the hotel in 1931 to Della Tovrea, wife of E. A. Tovrea, the owner of a nearby meat packing plant. They turned the castle into their home and it remained a family residence until Della's death in 1969.

The development plan for the castle includes a fully restored first floor illustrating how each room would have been used as a hotel and how they actually were used as a home. Changing exhibits that would review the history of the castle or detail the restoration and maintenance of the building and grounds would be housed in the basement. Also planned is a visitor center that not only would provide information about the castle and gardens, but also serve the broader Papago Salado Tourism District.


The story of Tovrea Castle and the Carraro Cactus Garden begins in 1928 when Italian immigrant Alessio Carraro sold his San Francisco sheet metal business and moved to Arizona searching for his American dream. Carraro found that dream in 277 aces of creosote-studded desert in an area that at the time was just east of the Phoenix city limits. Where others saw a barren setting, Alessio envisioned a resort castle surrounded by dense desert vegetation.

From 1928 to 1930, Alessio, his son Leo and a crew of about 20 workers shaped the landscape into a spectacular desert paradise. Crowning this landscape was the magnificent wedding cake-shaped "castle" reminiscent of his Italian homeland. Carraro hired a talented Russian gardner named Moktachev to develop the gardens while the castle was built.

Carraro's dream for the property was quickly shattered in 1930 when adjoining property owners began constructing sheep and cattle pens to supply a nearby meat packing plant owned by the Tovrea family. Discouraged, Carraro sold the castle and surrounding land to Della Tovrea in 1931.

E. A. Tovrea, Della's husband, passed away shortly thereafter in 1932, but Della retained the Castle as her Phoenix residence. In 1936 she married William Stuart, the publisher of the Prescott Courier and collector of Internal Revenue for Arizona. They spent most of the year in Prescott but lived in the castle every winter. Mr. Stuart died in 1960, and Della relocated to the Castle permanently until her death in 1969. In 1970, the Tovrea Family Trust assumed control of the property.

Since the late 1960's the property has remained largely unused. Without regular upkeep and maintenance, the fragile cactus gardens declined rapidly and the historic castle deteriorated. In 1993, the city of Phoenix purchased the castle and seven and a half acres immediately surrounding the building. Between 1996 and 2003, the city purchased an additional 36 acres of land surrounding the Castle, preserving it for future enjoyment and use.

Della Tovrea Stuart (1888-1969) also known as Della Gillespie; Della Tovrea; Mrs. E. A. Tovrea; Mrs. William P. Stuart of Phoenix, Maricopa County, Ariz.; Prescott, Yavapai County, Ariz. Born in Blanco, Blanco County, Tex., October 8, 1888. Daughter of James Steele Gillespie and Irene (Anderson) Gillespie; married, December 18, 1906, to Edward A. Tovrea (died 1932); married, November 16, 1936, to William P. Stuart. Democrat. Auditor; director and vice-president, Tovrea Packing Co., 1919-46; president, Central Arizona Broadcasting Co., 1937-44; delegate to Democratic National Convention from Arizona, 1936; member of Arizona Democratic State Central Committee, 1940; member of Democratic National Committee from Arizona, 1940-56. Female. Quaker. Member, Daughters of the American Revolution. Died January 17, 1969. Burial location unknown.