TOVREA Mansion History

Historic Tovrea Mansion takes its place in the limelight

(This article is obtained from literature handed out at Tovrea Mansion)

By Judy Walker
The Arizona Republic

Each morning, shadows of the saguanos at Tovrea Castle point toward a less prominant but equally historic home of Phoenix pioneers.

The Tovrea Mansion, only a few blocks west of the castle, was the Tovrea family's main home. It is now open to the public for weddings, receptions, meetings, and events.

One of the first events open to the public is an art auction from 6 to 9 pm Thursday. The event is a fund raiser for IFDA, the International Furnishings and Design Association. A percentage of the proceeds will go to Phoenix Children's Hospital, and the balance will support IFDA student programs.

The auction will feature original works, including wall art, jewelry, stoneware, fiber, textiles, photography and furniture. Guests will be able to stroll the lush grounds. Tickets are $15.00 per person: for reservations, phone 948-2727.

Motorists on the Hohokam Freeway, just north Sky Harbor International Airport, no doubt have noticed the estate's exuberant foilage. It looks like an oasis on its 2-1/2 acres, on Van Buren between 44th and 48th Streets.

"It's pretty peaceful here, very subdued," said Lou Spelts, whose mother was a Tovrea; he now manages the mansion for his family.

When he was a child, this was his family's central gathering spot. Spelts still has charming snapshots of the great room decorated for Christmas.

His grandmother, Helen Green Tovrea, oversaw the postwar remodeling that turned a two-story California-style bungalow into a 6,000 square-foot ranch house.

The home was surrounded by hundreds of acres of feedlots. A packing plant, ultimately sold to Cudahy Packing Co.,also was on the 600-acre property.

The feedlots were torn down in 1973 and the packing plant came down to make way for the freeway. The family is renting the mansion for special occasions, Spelts said, to help pay for its upkeep.

E.A. Tovrea arrived in Arizona in the early 1880s with a team of eight oxen. He hauled ore from Jerome to Ash Fork, became mayor of Jerome and had butcher shops there and in Bisbee. He sat in Arizona's first Constitutional Convention in 1910-11.

Ed Tovrea bought "El Castillo" in 1931, after he had become one of the West's foremost cattle producers. He only lived there for 1-1/2 years; his widow, Della, occupied it until her death in 1969.

Ed's son, Phil Tovrea Sr., built the Tovrea Mansion in 1910-15 and raised his family here. The newspapers called him "The Baron of Van Buren."

Phil Tovrea took over the cattle operation in 1928, and in the early 1930s controlled five ranches in California and Arizona. The feedlots at one point held 30,000 head.

"This was the largest custom cattle-feeding operation in the U.S.," Spelts said. The family owned farms (to raise feed), feed-processing plants, ranches and the feedlots, the packing plant, and a bank to finance it all.

They also built the Stockyards Restaurant, which still stands, where they served their product (Helen Tovrea decorated the restaurant).

Home celebrates ranching

The older part of the home still has rich details celebrating its cattle heritage, such as ahorseshoe on the front door with the Tovrea name, over a door handle of wrought iron that resembles braided rope. Deluxe treatments include pegged-plank oak floors, beamed and coffered ceilings, marble fireplaces and arches.

The newer addition is open and airy, with large windows and wrought copper grills on every screen door. Every bedroom, loaded with built-ins, had its own bath with sunken tub; every bath had its own dressing room; every dressing room had its own safe. The children's rooms had adjacent playrooms, with exterior doors.

Much of the house is now office space. The great room off the patio is used for party space in case of inclement weather, Spelts said. The gigantic kitchen and butler's pantry--with stainless-steel counters, a large island and two mammouth refrigerators--are used by caterers for the events.

Other, less noticeable practical touches can be found, too. In the kitchen, Spelts flipped a switch to start an outside fan that blows air down from directly above the back door; it kept out flies. The six-car garage has front and back doors, so cars could be driven out onto Van Buren or back to the packing plant.

Stairway to the past

Outside, one of the most poignant reminders of the estate's history is a set of stairs that mounts one side of an adobe wall, which now defines the west side of the parking lot.

"They were cattle stairs," Spelts said. "You walked up them to see the cattle. We took the ones on the other side down when we put in the parking lot."

Lavish stonework marks the mansion's grounds. Spelts said his grandmother employed a stonemason for years, directing the placement of special rocks herself.

The large back patio is flagstone, with a very large outdoor fireplace (and a lavish wrought-iron screen) and a wrought-iron lantern held up by what seems to be a Phoenix bird with a ring through its nose. Shading the fireplace are a magnolia and hundreds of other mature shrubs and trees.

Some of the palms are clad in bougainvillca. Hibiscus and poinsettias are tree-size.

Artistry in rock

Elaborate rock fountains dotting the property are turned on for special events, Spelts said. Helen Tovrea's mason sculpted one wall, as well as the stone seating under the lanai--which has square wrought-iron columns, a misting system, an outdoor air cooler and a built-in barbecue. The lanai is next to the pool, where a mermaid decorates the bottom.

The Rose Room is where Helen Tovrea and the mason did their finest work. Two walls of the room are glass; they face the pool and the strip of lawn where weddings are held.

Two walls are rock. One has hammered-copper cabinetry built-in, with a sink, refrigerator and all kitchen amenities. Above the cabinets are niches and shelves, often backed with matching split agates.

Big chunks of rose` quartz dot all the rock work, but they are especially lavish on the fireplace wall. A waterfall is built into the wall, as are downlights under subtle rock sconces.

The tennis court still looks pretty much as it did when Spelts was a kid and the family threw big parties.

"They used to put tables end-to-end here and barbecue a whole cow from the plant," he said.

They also used to have giant swim parties; The entire lanai and pool area once was a huge pool, about 100 by 40 feet. It was taken out and the current pool installed in the early 1950s.

Mansion Wedding Info

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The Tovrea Mansion Award

� 1997