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Castle courtyard showcases its walls of river rock.
Castle courtyard showcases its walls of river rock.

Rubel Castle

Field review by the editors.

Glendora, California

There's a magical kingdom that you can visit just outside of Los Angeles. Not the slick, sanitized theme park in Anaheim; that's 30 miles down the road. This kingdom was built by a school bus driver. It has no spinning teacups, but it does have chickens. And the grave of the king.

Inner gate assembled from banged-together boards.
Inner gate assembled from banged-together boards.

Michael Clarke Rubel (1940-2007) came out west with his Greenwich Village Follies dancer mom and Episcopal minister dad. In 1959 Michael bought a rundown fruit packing house and abandoned reservoir and began building a castle -- when he wasn't driving his bus. He persuaded his family and hundreds of friends to haul rocks, pour concrete, pick up bottles and scrap metal, and do whatever else it took to get the castle built, with the assurance of a party afterwards.

Michael was up against an expanding suburban milieu and zoning regulations for "ranch-style homes." Then, in 1969, a flood devastated the surrounding area. Michael opened his castle to the community, and even allowed the Red Cross to set up their relief headquarters on the grounds. Rubel Castle went from eyesore to endearing landmark.

Michael Clarke Rubel, king of the castle.
Michael Clarke Rubel, king of the castle.

Construction continued until 1986, culminating in another castle party. Unlike many other kings, Michael was satisfied, and reigned over his dominion for the rest of his life.

Being open to the public has always been part of Rubel Castle. Tours are now run through the Glendora Historical Society, with guides leading groups several times a month through the sometimes treacherous castle terrain.

It starts outside the main gate. The surrounding neighborhood was built concurrently with the castle, and since most of the homes obeyed the zoning restrictions, the castle's jutting river rock towers were inescapable and imposing (at least until the trees grew up). No vats of boiling oil or crossbow arrows rain down, but the castle has had at least one working cannon (drilled out of a telephone pole). Hans Hermann, a tour guide and friend of Michael's, recalled that "when they were really bored, and after a few Coronas, probably, they would fill it up and shoot it. And each guy would shoot a different fruit, and they knew whoever got the furthest, because the neighbor would call, 'Hey Michael, knock it off! I've got oranges in my pool again.'"

Royal command from beyond the grave.
Royal command from beyond the grave.

The kingdom is peaceable now, and in all but dress it suggests a medieval habitat. A horse stable abuts the front gate. Chickens, dogs, and some locally notorious peacocks roam under fruit trees and atop broken tile and mosaic. The castle includes a cemetery, courtesy of a stonecutter apprentice friend of Michael's, who offered him misspelled rejects and never-picked-up graveyard castoffs as macabre decoration. Michael himself has a correctly spelled memorial, complete with an engraved granite command to any lingering mourners: "Please move over! You're standing on my stomach." Some of Michael's ashes are here.

Wood portcullis shields the castle garrison from the outside world.
Wood portcullis shields the castle garrison from the outside world.

The red chair that he used as his throne, now empty, still overlooks his kingdom from the veranda of his personal quarters.

As the guided tour weaves around the property, the guide provides architectural secrets ("That's just rock construction with railroad track in it for rebar.") and offer tales of Michael's reign ("To me, [he] was a whimsical Don Quixote, with a lot of Rube Goldberg in him.") Glass bottles, motorcycle parts, and other refuse jut out of the castle walls, their smooth river rocks sometimes acquired by Michael from the children that he drove to school in his bus.

The original king's quarter's, a hovel more fitting for a peasant, is in the castle compound's main square. Michael built it to get away from the packing house, where his mother had moved in. The packing house, at the behest of family friend and Glendora resident Sally Rand (a heartthrob of the late Max Nordeen), became known as The Tin Palace, notorious for raucous all-night parties attended by fading stars from vaudeville and Hollywood's silent screen.

Every good castle needs its own gift shop.
Every good castle needs its own gift shop.

Weaving through the castle's commercial district, the tour passes the biggest of the towers, 65 feet high, with a 3,200-pound brass bell ringing on the hour from its summit. There are workshops for woodwork and weaving, and blacksmiths still come every Saturday to fire up the forges.

King Rubel rests near a rusty tractor and an old caboose.
King Rubel rests near a rusty tractor and an old caboose.

A video interview from Huell Howser's California's Gold runs on a monitor and provides insight into the thinking of King Michael: "I didn't do well out in the real world and I did really well hauling rocks around," he explains. "You don't have to be very bright to haul rock around... you have to have persistence, and you have to have an obsession."

He notes that although this castle was formed from his need to have it, Michael also "didn't want to disappoint his friends" by stopping its construction. Almost from the start it's been a place for kindred spirits to live. Several private apartments have been carved out within the castle walls, and ten people still live here full-time.

A "No Hard Liquor and No Smoking" rule kept both the Castle and its inhabitants from backsliding, although Michael was known to smoke a pipe from time to time. The benevolent despotism of Rubel Castle might turn off some visitors, but long-time resident Sue told us that it was Michael's top-down political structure that made it work. "That's one of the reasons that it was such a smooth operation around here," she said. "We had a king. And he kept us gelled."

Perhaps this is why Rubel Castle has stayed a successful co-living hamlet for over 50 years, whereas most of its commune contemporaries, after a short period of infighting and disillusionment, went from Back-to-the-Land to Back-to-the-Man when the strawberry wine and revelry dried up.

Sue, a labor and delivery nurse, said that most of the tenants had real jobs, such as teachers and doctors. "But when we came home, we played," whether at a concrete pour or a folk concert. Some of the Rubelions, as they still call themselves, stayed for a decade or more, while others have been here since its inception, the only unifying maxim being "work hard, play hard." Judging by the Castle's scrapbook, sometimes at the same time.

The Castle is open to visitors year-round, but those with hopes of moving in permanently might have to wait. We were told that only one apartment had become available in the past five years, and that only around 25 full-time Rubelions had lived here since the beginning. However, the gift shop is well-stocked for those wanting to bring a little Rubel Castle home with them.

Rubel Castle

844 N. Live Oak Ave., Glendora, CA
North edge of town. From Route 66 turn north at the stoplight onto Elwood Ave. Drive a half-mile. At the stop sign turn left onto Foothill Blvd, then make the first right onto N. Live Oak Ave. Drive one mile. You'll see the walled castle compound on the right, just before the stop sign at Palm Drive.
Tours by appt only. (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Tours $20. Cash only.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

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In the region:
Cascades Park, Monterey Park, CA - 17 mi.

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