To this day, the unusual looking structure sitting atop the knoll, near what is now East Van Buren and 52nd Streets, remains a curiosity to Valley residents and passersby. Resembling a wedding cake or castle, Tovrea Castle at Carraro Heights has a rich and interesting history with its roots in the lives of 3 very distinct families.
In 1907, F.L. and Lizzie Warner established a homestead on 160 acres of desert land. They built their house atop a rocky knoll, met the Homestead Act requirements, and in five years the land was theirs.
In 1924, they doubled their holdings by adding an adjacent parcel that had belonged to Lizzie’s son. When Lizzie died, Lillian Warner Smith (a relative of F.L.’s) came to Arizona to care for F.L.
Together, they subdivided a portion of the homestead in 1926, creating “Warner Heights.” Three lots sold immediately. Lillian inherited the property when F.L. passed away and eventually sold 277 acres to Alessio Carraro in 1928.
Born in Italy, Alessio Carraro came to the United States in 1907 and built a fortune in the sheet metal business in San Francisco, California. With modest beginnings as a shoe cobbler, he became a successful land developer, gold miner and was known for his prowess as a Water Witch.
In 1928, Alessio moved to Arizona with dreams of developing the desert just east of Phoenix into a resort destination and housing subdivision known as Carraro Heights. The centerpiece of his design was a hotel – the main structure we see today. The building’s architecture and the surrounding gardens are the result of his vision. Along with his son Leo, Alessio oversaw the fourteen-month project which was completed in 1930.
The Carraro dreams were short-lived, however, as the hotel and a portion of the property were sold in 1931. Some speculate the nearby meat packing plant was to blame for dashing Alessio’s dream. Others surmise the timing of his venture, which paralleled the Great Depression, created financial stresses. Nonetheless, the “vision” remains today for all to enjoy.
Mr. Carraro eventually moved to Yarnell, where he envisioned a tourist attraction full of imaginary animals, trails and a tiny castle built by hand on top of a hill. Today, his venture in Yarnell is known as Carraro’s Grotto, which is privately owned. Alessio Carraro died in 1964, but his vision and imagination live on.
For those living in Phoenix, the name Tovrea Castle is well known; to others they have no idea the name of the odd shaped structure on the hill.
The Tovrea story begins with a young man named Edward Ambrose (“E.A.”) Tovrea. Born in Illinois in 1861, E.A. moved to Kansas at the age of 10 where he worked on a cattle ranch and learned skills that in time would lead him to build a prosperous empire. A true pioneer, at the age of 19, he moved west and started a freight company transporting goods between Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. He eventually settled in Arizona where he built and owned butcher shops throughout the state. His final stop was in Phoenix in 1919 where he founded the Arizona Packing Company, later known as the Tovrea Packing Company, located just east of Phoenix in the area that is now around Washington and 48th Street.
E.A.’s business ventures were eventually passed on to his son, known as Big Phil, and the Tovrea empire continued to thrive. E.A. and Big Phil were respected business men, and well known for being men of their word, with handshakes being their bond.
History reflects that the employees of the Tovrea workforce were extremely loyal and the Tovrea business enjoyed low employee turnover – a sign of a healthy and positive working environment. The company prospered for 50 years and during the 1940’s was considered one of the most modern and well-run meat processing and packing plants in the world.
In 1931, E.A. and his second wife, Della, purchased the castle with 44 acres from Alessio Carraro. Sadly, E.A. passed away within a year. Della Tovrea resided in the castle until her death in 1969.
The Castle and the 44 acre Cactus Gardens were purchased from the Tovrea Family Estate by the City of Phoenix in 1993 with monies raised though a series of bond elections approved overwhelmingly by the Citizens of Phoenix.