The Southwest is filled to the sunshine soaked brim with visual attractions, landmarks, museums and so much more. There is literally so much to enjoy across the states that many visitors and locals can easily overlook some of the Southwest’s most precious hidden gems. To ensure you and your friends never fall into that category we have comprised a list of the most interesting Southwest museums that even most locals don’t know are located in their neck of the woods.
Mystery Castle | Phoenix
Built in the 1930s by a father who thought he had just a short time to live, the Mystery Castle was built on the slopes of South Mountain overlooking the panoramic views across the Phoenix skyline as a final gift to his daughter. Those that visit will discover an amazing feat by a reclusive man that had no construction skill, but possessed a strange creative vision. In 1929, Boyce Gulley left his Seattle office to see a doctor and never returned home to his wife and daughter who was only four years old. Diagnosed with tuberculosis and given a short time to live, Gulley simply disappeared and would never see them again.
Remembering the sand castles, he built with his young daughter, Mary Lou on the beaches of the Pacific Ocean, Gulley set out to build her a castle that would last forever. He mysteriously re-appeared three years later in Phoenix where the dry climate was assumed to extend the life of tuberculosis patients. He purchased a piece of land on the slopes of South Mountain in Phoenix, Arizona that would become the permanent home of Mary Lou’s castle. He was able to complete the castle he had promised his daughter. Through a lawyer, Gulley’s wife and daughter were noticed of his passing in 1945 along with reasons for his disappearing. Mary Lou and her mother inherited the castle and made it their home later that year.
MOB Museum | Las Vegas
It’s hard to believe that less than 30 years ago hotels in Vegas were still run by the mob and now visitors can learn all about the sordid past of Las Vegas at the Mob Museum located in the heart of downtown Vegas on Stewart Avenue. The $42-million museum features interactive exhibits and more than 1,000 iconic artifacts that teach visitors all about the most notorious gangsters in Vegas, the history of the mafia and how organized crime impacted the rest of America and the world. Designed by the same team that created the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland and the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C, the mob museum depicts an all-encompassing view of mobsters from their rise to prominence in Vegas to how law enforcement initiatives led to their demise.
Not only do guests get to learn about the history of the mob, but they get a chance to do so while standing in one of the places where some of those events occurred. Apart from the legal measures taken against organized crime, the museum offers plenty of exhibits that focus on the mobsters. The most valuable artifact in the museum is the brick wall from Chicago’s Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929. There are also exhibits that showcase items that belonged to Al Capone, Charlie Luciano, Meyer Lansky, Benjamin Siegel, Sam Giancana, Frank Rosenthal, Mickey Cohen and Tony Spilotro, among others. The museum doesn’t omit any details, including the gory ones. Some of the exhibits feature weapons and graphic photos of deceased mob members found at crime scenes. There’s a swanky theater room where you can take a seat in one of the plush booths and see clips from all your favorite gangster movies that portray a more romanticized version of life as a mobster.
Museum of the West | Scottsdale
Scottsdale’s Museum of the West celebrates the art, history, culture and unique stories of the 19 states comprising the American West. The contemporary, 43,000-square- foot building is an architectural gem that meets the highest standards for sustainability and conservation of natural resources. In addition to the hundreds of works of art featured in its galleries, visitors will enjoy the interactive exhibits, beautiful outdoor sculpture courtyard and museum store. Special performances, programs and events in the theater/auditorium tell the stories of the American West—both past and present—through the eyes of its diverse peoples. The rotating exhibitions feature Western art, rare historic artifacts and cultural treasures on loan from some of the world’s foremost collectors and institutions. The museum is located in the arts district of downtown Scottsdale, “The West’s Most Western Town,” within easy walking distance of numerous art galleries and restaurants.
Tovrea | Phoenix
Tovrea Castle was born out of the vision of Italian Alessio Carraro, who came to Phoenix in 1928 with a dream to build a resort hotel castle surrounded by an exotic cactus garden and a subdivision of deluxe homes. While Carraro’s dream of a hotel-resort never came to be, he did build the castle. It was purchased by stockyard mogul E.A. Tovrea in 1931, and the unique home became a historic Arizona icon in the city of Phoenix. The building was a thing of beauty, based on Italian architecture and tiered like a wedding cake. However, perhaps because of the stench from the nearby Tovrea meatpacking stockyards, or because of the Great Depression, it never opened.
Carraro sold his castle and its 42 acres to Edward Ambrose Tovrea, magnate of the stockyards, who transformed the massive hotel into a private residence. Tovrea died after less than a year living in the castle, and is memorialized by a giant steel pyramid on the property. His widow Della lived there until her death in 1969. Over the years Tovrea Castle developed an air of mystery. As Phoenix grew outward and the land surrounding the castle developed into a metropolitan area, the isolated mansion and its acres of desert attracted a lot of attention. After Della’s death, the land was purchased by the City of Phoenix. The structure was restored, its cactus garden replanted, and the grounds were opened for tours.
Amerind | Benson
The Amerind Foundation was founded in 1937 by William Shirley Fulton (1880-1964) as a private, nonprofit archaeological research institution. Throughout the 1920s Fulton regularly traveled west from his New England home, heading into the southwestern mountains, canyons, and plateau country to explore for archaeological ruins and expand his Native American collections. Prior to 1985 the Museum was open to the public by appointment only, and for good reason: the entire collection was stored on open shelving in the museum galleries, in direct sunlight, subject to severe swings in temperature and humidity, and within easy reach of visitors touring the galleries. In 1985, most of the collections were moved into permanent storage where light, temperature, and humidity could be more closely monitored and controlled, and the museum galleries were filled with interpretive exhibitions and opened to the walk-in public. Today, Amerind Museum exhibitions tell the story of America’s first peoples from Alaska to South America and from the last Ice Age to the present. Amerind’s Fulton-Hayden Memorial Art Gallery features works on western themes by such artists as Carl Oscar Borg, William Leigh, Frederic Remington, and Andy Tsihnahjinnie, and one room in the Art Gallery is reserved for the presentation of contemporary Native American art.
Amargosa Opera House | California
In the middle of Death Valley, known as one of the harshest and most extreme environments on earth, stands the Amargosa Opera House and Hotel. The Amargosa, whose name stems from the Spanish word for “bitter” (amargo), is located in a town called Death Valley Junction, which has a population of less than twenty, with zero restaurants and zero gas stations. Most visitors and residents would agree that the only thing going in Death Valley Junction today is the white-washed, sunbaked, and reportedly haunted Amargosa Opera House and Hotel. The Amargosa’s story is two-fold. Not only does it have a haunted reputation, but it has a fascinating history as a beacon of artistic freedom and spirit. Both the opera house and the hotel were constructed in the 1920s by the Pacific Borax Mining company, who built the town to accommodate its mine workers.
Since the late 1960’s however, the property has been owned by Ms. Marta Becket, a brilliantly talented, free-spirited artist and dancer, who gave up life in the big city to blaze her own trail of artistic expression in the desert. Ms. Becket was a dancer from New York City who stumbled upon the Amargosa after getting a flat tire while on a road trip with her husband; it was an incident that would change the course of her life forever. According to Marta, she peered into the run-down opera house through a small opening in the door, and she “saw the second the half” of her life. So, she bought the place, and breathed new life into Death Valley Junction, restoring the opera house for performances, and painting murals on all the walls. She has been performing at the opera house ever since, and still does today, despite being eighty-something years of age. Marta Becket’s spirit and the Amargosa are inextricably intertwined. There is no doubt that she will remain with the Amargosa for as long as it still stands, and perhaps longer, as evidenced in this mural she painted in the hotel lobby, which depicts her spirit dancing and flittering around the ruins of the property!
Miniature Museum | Tucson
The Miniature Museum was created from the imagination and dedication of Founders, Patricia and Walter Arnell. Pat’s fondness for miniatures began in the 1930’s, when as a young girl, she received her first miniatures, which was a set of Strombecker wooden dollhouse furniture. It wasn’t until the Arnell’s moved to Tucson in 1979 that Pat began collecting in large quantities. The Arnell’s became very active in the miniature community becoming recognized members and supporters of important organizations such as NAME (National Association of Miniature Enthusiasts) and IGMA (International Guild of Miniature Artisans). The collection grew and the Arnell’s dreamed of a way to share it with more people. They envisioned an interactive space where the entertaining and educational aspects of the collection could be enjoyed by everyone- a place that would be enchanting, magical and provide a rich sensory experience.
The concept of “the mini time machine” was born out of the notion that a visitor would be seemingly transported to different eras by the stories and history of the pieces in the collection. The design and building of the museum was a huge collaborative effort. Swaim Associates Architects in Tucson, Arizona was chosen as the architect for the project. The exhibit design was carried out by Claro Creative Studios, a team of designers, gadgeteers and entertainment enthusiasts based out of Glendale, California. Construction of the project spanned nearly two years. The museum is dedicated to all who participate in the world of miniatures through education, creation or enjoyment.