Tovrea Castle at Carraro Heights, a Phoenix Point of Pride

Tovrea Castle at Carraro Heights is a “Jewel in the Desert” that has intrigued people in the...
Tovrea Castle at Carraro Heights is a “Jewel in the Desert” that has intrigued people in the Valley of the Sun for 90 years and is a Phoenix Point of Pride.(Tovrea Castle Tours)
Published: May. 25, 2022 at 7:53 PM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) - Locals have called it “The Wedding Cake” house, as the shape of the multi-tiered home resembles a three-layer cake. You’ve likely seen the unique structure near the intersection of Van Buren and 52nd streets. Drivers along the Loop 202 freeway enjoy a clear view of the Phoenix landmark perched atop a knoll surrounded by acres of the desert landscape.

Tovrea Castle at Carraro Heights is a Phoenix Point of Pride that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The name encompasses both families, Carraro and Tovrea, whose pasts are tied to the unusual structure.

Their story begins with one man, Alessio Carraro, a visionary who arrived in California in the early 1900s after leaving his home in Italy. Carraro rose to become a successful businessman in San Francisco, selling sheet metal after the great fire of 1906. The entrepreneur was drawn to Arizona in 1928 with a dream to build a resort community near the desert city of Phoenix.

Alessio Carraro and his family arrived in California from Italy. There he became a successful...
Alessio Carraro and his family arrived in California from Italy. There he became a successful businessman before moving to Arizona to build his resort.(AZ Historical Society)

At the time, 16th Street was the eastern boundary of Phoenix, and Van Buren was the only road to Tempe. Carraro believed that the resort would attract the development of homes and businesses, allowing the city’s boundaries to expand.

After buying 277 acres east of the city, Carraro took to building the resort hotel on the site. It would be located on a hill overlooking a desert garden. Around the resort, there was enough space to build out home sites, which he planned to sell. The community he would build would be named after him, Carraro Heights. Between 1928 and 1930 Carraro’s vision began taking shape. With the help of his son, Leo, Carraro began building his hotel.

About the same time, Carraro was building his resort, a neighbor of his had his own plans taking shape, the shape of a cow. E. A. Tovrea owned stockyards on property that butted up to Carraro’s land. Unfortunately for the future resort, the aroma of cattle pays no heed to property boundaries.

With the hotel finished in 1931, it seems Carraro’s dream had gone as far as he could take it. The nation’s economy had turned upside down after the market crash of 1929; no one had money to stay at the hotel, or even think about purchasing a lot on the property. Activities of the nearby slaughterhouses, and the smells brought about by herds of cattle, likely made an impression in their mind of Carraro too. It was time to give up on the resort, sell the property, and move on.

In an interesting twist to the story, the buyer of the site was an anonymous bidder who offered $28,500 for the land, roughly one-tenth what Carraro had paid just a few years earlier. Still, he sold the lot unknowingly to his neighbor, E.A. Tovrea. It seems his wife, Della, had been smitten with the property ever since she saw it.

E.A. Tovrea and Della Tovrea owned stockyards next to the castle when they purchased the...
E.A. Tovrea and Della Tovrea owned stockyards next to the castle when they purchased the property and moved in.(Find A Grave)

The Tovreas moved into the home, and E. A. died about a year later, but Della would live in the home until 1969 when she was beaten by a pair of men attempting to rob her home. The two were caught, but Della died shortly after the crime.

As for Carraro, he ended up in Yarnell where his imagination conjured up yet another visionary home. The boulder-filled Carraro’s Grotto, built by hand and filled with imaginary animals, trails, and a rock castle, still stands today. Carraro died in 1964 having left not one, but two remarkable homes to visit in Arizona.

The City of Phoenix obtained the Tovrea land in 1993, and in 1996 the property was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Tours of the property are available through the Tovrea Carraro Society, but they do sell out months in advance, so plan ahead for your visit.