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July 17, 2019

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Renovations underway at Scotty’s Castle, the bizarre and beautiful mansion in Death Valley

Scotty's Castle

Steve Marcus

Scotty’s Castle has been closed since a massive 2015 flood caused extensive damage to the property. The site is expected to reopen in 2020.

Imagine driving through the desert, passing endless mountains, sagebrush, cactuses and Joshua trees. The sun is beating down, and you haven’t seen a sign of human life for miles, other than the occasional gas station.

Out of nowhere, you spot something in the distance: It’s huge. It’s opulent. It’s clearly man-made. We’re not talking about Las Vegas. We’re talking about Scotty’s Castle.

Scotty’s Castle—originally known as Death Valley Ranch—is a 1920s-era mansion located in the northern Grapevine Canyon area of Death Valley National Park, about three hours from Las Vegas. Built and financed by Chicago insurance tycoon Albert Mussey Johnson, the “castle” and surrounding buildings and grounds were mostly inhabited by Walter E. Scott, a gold prospector for whom the structure is named.

Scotty's Castle Flood Damage

Mud, rocks, and other flood debris washed up against the side of a building. credit: NPS Launch slideshow »

In addition to the main house where Scott and Johnson lived and frequently entertained guests, the grounds consist of an annex, a guest house, stables, a garage-turned-visitor center, a clock tower and a few other properties. The entire area is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Since the National Park Service purchased Scotty’s Castle in 1970, the grounds have been a major tourist attraction in Death Valley. Visitors flocked to the area to see the unusually ornate and remarkably intact architecture and furnished interior, and to learn about the unlikely friendship between Johnson, a deeply religious wealthy businessman, and Scott, a heavy drinker and Wild West con man known as “Death Valley Scotty.”

But things changed on October 18, 2015, when a historic storm hit Death Valley, dropping 2.7 inches of rain during the course of five hours to a region that typically receives just 3.5 inches of rain annually. The storm precipitated a major flood event that forced the NPS to close the campus.

“There hadn’t been a flood anywhere near as large since it had been built,” said Abby Wines, a public information officer and management assistant at Death Valley National Park.

Now, the NPS is in the process of restoring Scotty’s Castle and making it “flood-proof” so that the desert oasis might last for years to come. It’s no small project, as the storm caused $52 million in damage park-wide, most of which affected Scotty’s Castle. But the hope is that at least parts of Scotty’s Castle will be ready to reopen by late 2020.

“There’s lots of people who have been coming here for years and they want to come back,” said Steve Goode, a historic maintenance specialist at Death Valley National Park. “It is kind of an anomaly out in the middle of nowhere.”

The bulk of the damage from the 2015 storm occurred in two buildings on the castle grounds: the hacienda/guest house, particularly the basement, which was flooded with 2 feet of mud; and the historic garage (now used as a visitors center), parts of which were flooded with 4 feet of mud and debris.

The storm also destroyed 5 miles of the road to Scotty’s Castle, caused water damage campus-wide, and wiped out the HVAC, water and electricity systems, including in the main building, Wines said.

“That building is a little higher, so the flash flood didn’t go through it. But the roof leaked, and the flash flood took out the power to the whole site,” she said.

Scotty's Castle Restoration

Officials gather near the main house at Scotty's Castle in Death Valley National Park Thursday, May 2, 2019. Scotty's Castle has been closed since a massive flood on October 18, 2015 caused extensive damage to utilities, buildings, and the road way. The attraction is expected to reopen in 2020. Launch slideshow »

Part of Scotty’s Castle’s charm, as well as its historical and architectural significance, is that every interior and exterior feature of the buildings, down to the door handles, floor tiles, lighting structures and curtain rods, was designed with immense attention to detail. Conceived by Johnson, as well as architect Martin de Dubovay and designer Charles Alexander MacNeilledge, the Mission Revival-inspired properties have held up remarkably well considering their age, and even the 2015 storm wasn’t enough to compromise most of its historic elements.

“This is all redwood,” Goode said during a recent tour of the property, gesturing to the thick, ornately carved doors. “It’s been tooled and burned with a torch, so it’s really unique.”

Prior to its closure, Scotty’s was also full of unusual treasures leftover from its primary inhabitant, including Scott’s gun collection and pipe organ. Those items are now being stored elsewhere in a climate-controlled environment until work is complete.

“There’s a lot of really just priceless stuff and there’s only one [each] of them,” Goode said. “So [NPS staff] were real concerned about that, and they felt that the best thing to do was to move the stuff off-site.”

In addition to repairing the buildings and the road to Scotty’s Castle, the NPS is taking steps to prevent future floods from further damaging the structures. The plan is to construct a series of berms surrounding the grounds so that water and debris flowing from the canyons during rain events don’t hit the buildings, explained Goode.

“The berm is designed so the water comes out of [the] canyon and basically gets funneled down the road,” Goode said.

This step is crucial, considering that the desert climate is prone to erosion and flooding and the grounds lack drains and a sewer system. And although flooding has historically shaped the landscape of the region, NPS staff anticipates that severe flood events will occur more frequently because of climate change.

Goode and Wines hope to ensure that upgrades and changes to the property, which will be conducted by outside contractors, are done in ways that maintain significant features. At the same time, park staff recognizes the need to strike a balance between keeping the buildings as they were originally and making necessary changes to ensure the 90-year-old structures will last even longer, Wines said.

“In a perfect world, we wouldn’t want [visitors] to see flood control because it has to be historically significant,” Wines said. “But … this is not the largest flood that will happen in the future. There will be bigger ones. So if we don’t protect the site from flood damage, then we’re going to lose it entirely.”

This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.