The Rubel Castle Is a Beautiful Trash Palace
All photos by the author
The Rubel Castle Is a Beautiful Trash Palace: The Rubel Castle, located in the sleepy suburb of Glendora, California, is often referred to as a poor man’s version of Hearst Castle. Which makes sense, as it is exactly that: a castle constructed not out of imported tile, but of trash.
Bottles, bedsprings, typewriters, trophies, and rocks comprise its walls. It stands as a monument to the dream of its creator, Michael Rubel.
Rubel grew up in a home that buttressed the city dump, using its trash to create forts as a kid. He also used to swim in a watering hole at the Albourne Rancho, which was then owned by the heir of the Singer Sewing Company empire. Through a series of absurdly unbelievable circumstances, which space and an inability to properly comprehend prevent me from outlining (“Someone should make a movie out of this guy’s life!” one old timer on the tour of Rubel Castle I recently took exclaimed, and I wondered why someone had not already done so), the Singer heir bequeathed part of the land to Michael. At the age of 19, Rubel found himself the owner of 2.2 acres. He then moved himself and his mother, a former Follies dancer, into the property’s citrus packing house. (His father, Heinz, who had the curious occupation of Episcopal minister and radio gag writer, died when Michael was six.)
In 1968, at the age of 28, Michael began his greatest construction project yet. Forts were Mickey Mouse stuff, now he was going to build his own castle.
This decision was made much to the chagrin of the City of Glendora. (They are more forgiving now, since the site was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2013. It operates under the ownership of the Glendora Historical Society and offers docent-run tours on an appointment-only basis.) It’s hard enough to get the city to issue the permits required to add a second story to your home, but it’s downright impossible to get them to issue permits to build a castle out of garbage. Not that Michael ever tried, mind you. He was more of an “act first, ask questions never” kind of guy.
Due to the project’s overwhelming lack of legality, the city constantly tried to stop construction. Singularly devoted to his task, he always found a way around them. When they shut off his water and power, he got generators and his own water tank. When they sent inspectors to his door, he’d send his grandfather out to talk them to death. It helped that the townspeople were on his side. They got together and wrote a letter to the City Council, informing them they would not continue to elect anyone who kept meddling in Rubel’s affairs.
Rubel’s primary occupation (secondary occupations included frog farmer and sailor) was that of a school bus driver. He used to make the kids bring him a rock every day in order to drive them to school. He’d also drive the bus to a nearby quarry and make the kids lug rocks up the hill. “Imagine if that happened today,” the docent leading my tour marveled. “The school district would be shut down, there’d be so many lawsuits.”
All construction materials, except for the concrete, which was donated by a benefactor, were salvaged. Whenever Michael heard of something unwanted, from train cars to windmills, he had it transported to the property, creating a bizarre garden of tossed aside artifacts. The windmill still stands; a once-abandoned caboose now functions as a guest house; and a 16-ton single piston oil pump is used to operate a bird bath.