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The Poor Man's Hearst Castle

May 26, 2009

Somehow I’d lived several decades without ever visiting Rubel Castle, or even hearing about it. And now I shall try to save you from the same fate.

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Rubel's twin bell towers, one boasting an 1896 clock from Stanford University

Way up on Live Oak in Glendora is an honest-to-goodness castle so jam-packed with sometimes-historic flotsam and jetsam that it’s taking a fleet of volunteers years to catalogue it all. The place was hand-built out of recycled materials over 28 years, from the 1960s to the late ’80s, without benefits of plans, engineering or permits. Naturally, this enraged the city of Glendora at the time — but now the city finds itself with a magical place that may well become a significant visitor destination in years to come.

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A view down one of the castle's alleyways, looking onto a tenant apartment

Here’s a relatively short version of what is a very long and totally fascinating story, which Glendora Historical Society member Don Green shared during a recent tour:

Mike Rubel grew up in Glendora in the 1940s and ’50s, the son of a former Ziegfeld Follies girl and a father who worked as a radio gag writer, partner to entertainer Joe Penner, and an Episcopal minister (Penner’s fledgling Hollywood career brought them from the bright lights of New York City to the orange groves of Glendora, and minister work helped keep them there). His dad died when he was little, and one of his several surrogate fathers was a Glendoran named Odo Stade, a remarkable man who’d traveled the world, spoke seventeen languages, was sent to Mexico as a U.S. emissary, became Pancho Villa’s right-hand man, and then fled to Glendora to live a quiet life after Villa was murdered. Like his idol, Rubel he left school at 17 and set off to travel the world for three years.

When Rubel was a boy, he used to swim in the two-million-gallon reservoir on the sprawling citrus ranch owned by Al Bourne, heir to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune. Bourne worried that kids would be hurt in his reservoir, so he chased the boy away dozens of times, and Rubel would tell the rich man, “Someday I’m going to buy this from you.”

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A weathervane depicting Don Quixote and windmills

When 20-year-old Rubel returned to Glendora after three years of world travel, he went to Mr. Bourne, who was in the process of subdividing and selling off pieces of his massive property to homebuilders, and somehow the poor young man convinced the rich old man to sell him a 2.5-acre parcel that included the reservoir. Bourne donated it to a church, with the understanding that Rubel would buy it from the church. There was just one problem: Rubel was broke. So he convinced Bourne to make the payments for him.

Although an eccentric and nonconformist, Mike Rubel was by no means a loner — he clearly had remarkable charm and people skills. He used these for the remaining 47 years of his life to inspire his many friends to help him design, build, furnish and populate his compound, which became known as Rubel Pharms. He became known throughout the San Gabriel Valley for his willingness to take any old stuff, regardless of its value, and it all found a home at the castle.

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Note the motorcycle in the wall

Much of the foundation is the underground walls of the old reservoir. The castle’s walls, hand-built of San Gabriel River rock, are studded with every imaginable castoff: a toaster, the rear end of a motorcycle, a telephone, a variety of small sculptures. Used in the actual building of the place (which has been deemed of remarkably sound engineering) was everything from scrap steel and telephone poles to old bedsprings and coat hangers. Passageways and tunnel walls are lined with old wine bottles. A large communal kitchen is filled with parts of old stagecoaches salvaged from Route 66 waystations. Various workrooms are crammed with old gear, some of it still used by the several artists who live on site: letterpress printing presses, a weaving loom, a complete machine shop and more. One of these little rooms holds the workings of an 1896 Seth Thomas clock, which once lived at Stanford University and which (of course) Rubel got for free from a friend; volunteers hand-wind the clock daily, and it chimes on the half-hour.

The compound holds several buildings besides the castle, including a Santa Fe Railroad caboose that serves as the guest house; garages and sheds filled with vintage cars and ancient tractors; and the original ranch packing house, which Rubel’s mother, Dorothy (who came to live with him once his compound was habitable), refurbished as a legendary party pad.

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Legendary fan dancer and vaudevillian Sally Rand was a close friend of Dorothy Rubel's and a regular at her parties; she left one of her trunks behind.

According to Green, everyone who was anyone in Hollywood came at least once to one of Dorothy’s parties, a claim that’s easy to believe when you see this vast space, jammed with Victorian furniture, an old truck, pianos, a model train set, a gorgeous canoe, wireless sets and about 10,000 more things, including a recently donated organ in perfect tune. (Mike Rubel, however, didn’t like these parties and stayed in his private lair.)

Rubel grew ill in 2005 and donated his property to the Glendora Historical Society; he passed away in 2007. The society manages the five apartments in the various buildings; the tenants are all artists who don’t mind the funky living conditions (let’s just say you need a certain tolerance for spiders and the crowing of the resident roosters) and who draw inspiration from the setting. They help maintain the place, tend the chickens and organic garden, and meet on Sundays in the common kitchen for brunch.

Although it’s not open (yet) for walk-in tours, the society is happy to lead private tours for twelve to thirty people at a suggested donation of $5 per person. It is more than worth the effort of finding eleven friends, $60 and 90 minutes to take this tour. Calling it a cross between Hearst Castle and Watts Towers doesn’t do it justice, but it’s a start. You’ve never seen anything like it, guaranteed. And the stories above are just the beginning….

Rubel Pharm and Castle
N. Live Oak Ave. at Palm, Glendora
For tours, go to tours.rubelcastle.org or call 626.963.0419

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In the common kitchen, now used by tenants for Sunday breakfast

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A passageway lined with bottles and assorted objets d'art

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There may not be a moat, but there are real fortified gates — as well as real canon and equipment for pouring boiling oil on invaders

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An extremely rare row of old Moreton Bay figs (usually you see just one), planted in the 19th century to provide shade for the citrus packing house.




7 Responses for “The Poor Man's Hearst Castle”

  1. ELEANOR DUNN says:

    This sounds fascinating– we’re going to try to schedule a tour.

  2. Skylar says:

    I need to go there.

  3. Kathy H says:

    Me too!! Awesome! Thanks for sharing.

  4. Lynna says:

    Excellent! Rubel Castle looks like Hearst Castle’s quirky cousin.
    Thanks for the resources and info.

  5. sandy gillis says:

    Very cool! A great spot for a grown ups’ birthday party!

  6. colleen says:

    Stay tuned for a Hometown Pasadena tour of Rubel Castle, hopefully partnered with a good meal.

  7. Petrea says:

    I’m up for it, Colleen. This is definitely my cup of tea. Wow.

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