Featured image credit: Polylerus
You could be forgiven for double-taking when you first notice a stone spire towering above the sun-scorched shingles of suburban rooftops in a tranquil Glendora neighborhood. After all, the shores of the United Kingdom are over 5,000 miles away. Your eyes aren’t playing tricks on you. There is a bonafide castle, complete with clock tower, portcullis, and, if you look closely enough, a fearsome dragon punctuating the kingdom… errr… city of Glendora. Locals know it by its official name: Rubel Castle. And you don’t even need to be royalty to pay it a visit, though it couldn’t hurt.
Glendora’s Tiny King
In 1929, acres of rustic Glendora land were owned by Singer sewing machine heir Arthur K. Bourne as part of his Albourne Rancho property. One of his young workers, Michael Rubel, spent a vast majority of his youth wandering the fragrant citrus orchards of this land. It was a kingdom of sorts to him; one in which a nine-year-old California boy could be king.
Perhaps blinded by the optimism of youth, the lad approached his boss, Bourne, with a simple proposition: grant him the rights to the sprawling land. Of course, Bourne didn’t really give this suggestion much thought. But he did donate a portion of his land to Grace Episocopal Church. This may not seem significant, but it was a decision that meant everything to Rubel.
By 1959, Rubel was a 19-year-old man. But rather than looking outward at the world, he was looking back. Back to the kingdom that seemed to fully belong to him in those sun-soaked afternoons among the citrus trees. Using his familial connections to the vestry of the Grace Episcopal Church, he managed to buy a 1.7 acre portion of that magical citrus orchard. Wanting to be as close to that magical source, he moved into Albourne Rancho’s abandoned citrus packing house.
The Stardust Queen of the Tin Palace
As you might guess of a 19-year-old purchasing a citrus grove, Rubel came from a family of eccentrics. Among them was his mother, Dorothy Rubel, a former Broadway actress who, for a period, kicked heels for the Greenwich Village Follies. Her path of stardust wove through the brush of Glendora to the fruit packing house where her darling son resided. And there she would reside as well.
Even the placid peacefulness of Glendora couldn’t mute Dorothy’s silver shine. Within no time, she’d transformed a simple packing house into a lavish dance hall, festooned with antiques and original art passed down through the family. It was a beacon, seducing the luminaries of the time to traverse the citrus trees in search of promised revelry.
Dressed to the nines, they came by the hundreds to rub shoulders with dignified celebrities and waltz to the hired orchestra. Dorothy’s gift for finding decadence in the most unlikely places earned her venue its name: The Tin Palace. The likes of Bob Hope, Angie Dickinson, and Alfred Hitchock now mingled where fieldhands had once feverishly packaged produce. Dwight Eisenhower once even got stuck on the wine cellar’s elevator. Dorothy’s Tin Palace felt like the most exciting thing to ever happen to Glendora. There was just one problem. It was smackdab in the middle of Michael Rubel’s kingdom.
The Strange Sanctuary of Champagne Bottles
The glamorous life that so entranced his mother soon wore thin for Rubel. So, he escaped to a sanctuary of his own making: a defunct citrus refrigerator. Even after installing cork walls, the cacophony of the Tin Palace kept Rubel up well into the wee hours of the morning. Thus, in 1968, the now nearly 30-year-old Rubel began building his refuge in the ruins of the million gallon concrete reservoir that had so faithfully served Arthur Bourne.
He expected the reservoir’s barrier to shield the noise better than his makeshift cork insulation. And in the center of the reservoir, he began to construct a simple home from concrete and the champagne bottles haphazardly discarded by inebriated Tin Palace patrons. Rubel likely never imagined that this home crafted from scavenged materials and desperation would still be standing over half a century later. But more impressive still are the dreams and visions that grew to envelop his modest sanctuary.
Rubel Castle Welcomes Its King Home
Like so many children, Rubel had always enjoyed building forts. He and his friends could create pillow palaces and clutter castles from virtually anything. It was a childhood sensibility that never quite burned away as Rubel got older. Rather, he took after his mother with an uncanny ability to create the grandiose out of items most men would regard as garbage. That’s why it didn’t take much arm twisting for Rubel’s friends to convince him to build a makeshift fort that would loom large in the minds of all who witnessed it.
Shortly after completing his champagne bottle shack, Rubel recruited his friends to begin work on a massive structure that would come to be known as Rubel Castle. But Rubel himself often regarded it simply as “Rubelia”: a kingdom that he’d seen decades before anyone else.
There were no known blueprints drafted for Rubel Castle; no architectural plans. Rubel and his crew built where their hearts guided them from whatever materials were at hand. Illustrating that it takes a village to raise a castle, Rubel’s friends invited their friends who invited their friends. Over the years, hundreds of sweaty hands have toiled in the creation of the Glendora castle.
But even those who wanted to keep their hands clean pitched in, with local businesses and individuals donating materials. For example, a patron of the arts donated the entirety of Rubel Castle’s concrete. Children would come by and help out during the sweltering summers, and those children’s parents would sometimes provide lunch for the full crew. It was community effort for the sake of community effort.
Measuring thousands of square feet and visually anchored by its five looming towers, each standing four stories tall, Rubel Castle seems to be pried right out of a fairytale. As if to underscore that point, observant visitors will find a two-dimensional dragon ominously curled in a crawlspace just past the tunnel extending from the portcullis. As Rubel famously told TV presenter and California institution Huell Howser when asked if the portcullis was crafted by traditional medieval methods, “They built them a lot better than we built them, but we had more fun!”
The sprawling grounds are also host to a working windmill that pumps water from historic Spanish water tunnels. A mock graveyard stretches across the yard, composed of donated marble rejects from a local cemetery. Rumor has it that some of these defective gravestones were worked into the edifices of Rubel Castle. But perhaps the most recognizable individual feature of Rubel Castle is the fully restored authentic Seth Thomas clock; a 1911 model worked into the pinnacle of one of the Glendora castle’s five towers. With its intricate system of weights, pulleys, and brass bells, it still rings out on the hour.
You don’t have to pay very close attention to recognize Rubel and his crew weren’t strictly adhering to medieval aesthetics. This becomes blatantly obvious when you find the Santa Fe caboose situated at the center of the land surrounded by seemingly forgotten trucks and tractors. The 1940s train car has been converted into a stunning apartment. However, it appears to be permanently vacant.
Rubel Castle as a Concrete Tribute to Glendora’s Past
Taking a page from the book of the found artist, Rubel Castle is almost exclusively composed of discarded and donated materials. This lends to the Glendora castle’s meandering, anything goes aesthetic. Rubel regularly scavenged Glendora as its farmhouses, ranches, and barns quickly gave way to single family homes. In this way, Rubel Castle serves as the artist’s own Frankenstein quiltwork of the city’s physical past.
Materials confirmed to be used in the construction of Rubel Castle include:
- Coat hangers
- Glass bottles
- Golf club
- Mattress springs
- Railroad tracks (used to reinforce concrete)
- River rock
- Sand-packed rubber gloves
- Telephone poles
Rubel Castle Today
For all purposes, Rubel considered Rubel Castle completed in 1986. In March of 2005, Rubel donated his castle to the Glendora Historical Society. Under the guidance of the Glendora Historical Society, tours are offered several times a month. In 2013, the Glendora castle was added to the National Register of Historic Places. To maintain the structure for future generations, preservation architects make occasional adjustments as necessary. Surprisingly, a number of tenants actually rent rooms in the castle, choosing to permanently reside in the land of Rubelia.
To the mind of an imaginative nine-year-old boy, this property was Rubel’s kingdom, even when deeded to Bourne. Yet, somewhere over the decades, Rubel Castle became as much the community of Glendora’s as his own. The hands and hearts that had raised its iconic turrets had left their marks all over its concrete tapestry. Michael Rubel passed away on October 15, 2007, but his spirit still imbues Rubelia with a contagious zest for life. It seems that anyone who crosses its threshold manages to, at least for a moment, be possessed with Rubel’s ability to find the beauty in all that the world discards.