Scotty’s Castle in Death Valley National Park

Thompson traveled to Chicago to discuss the project. Johnson offered him the position and then Thompson accompanied the Johnsons to Death Valley to see first hand what the project entailed. Thompson requested a one-year leave of absence from his current position. His request for leave was granted and he accepted the position as general superintendent at the Death Valley Ranch. Thompson fully expected to resume his activities with the Interstate Commerce Commission after only a single year in Death Valley. However, as plans and his involvement grew, so too did his commitment to the project. He stayed in Johnson’s employ for the next six years.

Thompson assumed his duties at the Ranch In October, 1925. The stables, chicken coop and workshop/shed were all under construction when Thompson started work. They were all probably started after Kropf had left, meaning that for approximately one full year, construction had continued without an on-site supervisor. By the time Thompson arrived, the stables required only a few finishing touches before it was completed. Construction of the long shed had started, but required a lot more work, and was one of the first major projects Thompson oversaw. The chicken coop was just nearing completion when Thompson arrived on the site. By the time it was almost finished, it was decided to use it for housing instead and became known as the “bunk house.” A chicken coop was then located in the long shed. All three of these buildings were designed by Albert Johnson. By 1924, a separate Cook House was finished that was devoted to preparing meals for the white crew. Besides a kitchen, it included a dining room for the men and a bedroom for the cook. Since all the preparation, cooking and eating of meals now took place exclusively in the cookhouse, the storeroom and cook shack in the north end of the garage were no longer necessary. They were converted and used instead as Thompson’s office and private apartment.

The first project Thompson started from the beginning was a one-story building parallel and to the north of the main building. In January, 1926 Thompson went to Los Angeles to recruit additional workers for this building. It was to be made entirely of concrete and would serve various purposes. Originally known as the “Cellar” it would later take the name of one of its major rooms and be called the “Commissary” or “Commissary Building.” The Commissary itself served as a storeroom for foodstuffs and other general supplies. A large open-air room in the center of the structure sheltered a work area for construction machinery and later was also used as a garage for automobiles. The room to the west of that became the “Power Room” where a Pelton water wheel would drive a small electric generator.

Scotty being interviewed by a reporter

Scotty being interviewed by a reporter

It was close to that point that a reporter visited the ranch. An article in the March 1926 issue of Sunset magazine described the buildings at the Ranch as follows:

“Already there is a two-story building of concrete construction [the main house], with screened-in sleeping quarters, luxurious bathrooms and expansive dining quarters. There is a garage that houses three trucks and two passenger cars and has sufficient empty space to care for a fire department. There is another enormous building [stables] that shelters mules used in the development work. And Scotty is building a plant [the Commissary Building] to generate electricity by the use of power that comes from spring water flowing from higher ground.”

This is only one of the many articles of the period that mentioned Scott as the main protagonist. The activity at the Ranch combined with its unusual location and word of it began to travel far and wide. Ironically, the Johnsons chose this location in order to escape the crowds and pressures of the city. They certainly did not mean to attract the attention of the curious public. The lavishness that they sought in their new home was not meant to impress strangers or the public-at-large, but, only meant to please themselves and to ingratiate those few individuals they invited there as guests. That being the case, it is not so hard to understand why the Johnsons allowed Scott to claim the building as his.

Scott was a character that loved to be center stage. He practically thrived on it. Neither Albert or Bessie cared for that kind of attention. In fact, Albert purposefully tried to keep his name out of the newspapers and began to rely on Scott to handle all publicity. Albert must have realized that he would need a front if he was ever to evade the public’s growing scrutiny. When asked by a reporter what his relationship to Scott and theRanch was, Johnson reportedly said, “I’m only his banker.” Although Scott had practically nothing to do with any part of the construction directly, Johnson continued to allow Scott to be the figurehead for the entire operation. Friends of the Johnsons and those who actually worked there knew the truth, but most of the public was kept unaware. The sham was so convincing that even today it becomes hard to separate fact from fiction.

It was not long after construction began at the Ranch that Johnson began thinking about hiring a professional architect to design something more splendid and appealing. Though he considered Frank Lloyd Wright, he ended up choosing a man named Charles Alexander MacNeilledge. On June 4, 1926, the two men entered into a contract, the stipulations of which required that MacNeilledge be paid a $1,000 flat fee in return for the . . . “designing and preparation of sketches and detailed working drawing, sufficiently detailed to enable my carpenters and other workmen on the job to erect buildings according to your sketches, and also including the purchasing and bills of material for the Redwood lumber, hardware, electric light fixtures, etc. required for my main house or residence with attached porches and pergolas, etc, located in Grapevine Canyon, Death Valley, Inyo County, California.” The quote seems to indicate that some of the basic design elements that make the ranch unique were already decided upon at this point; particularly the use of specific materials and the emphasis on metal hardware and custom made lighting fixtures.

The roof line of Scotty's Castle shows the Spanish Moorish influences, Dave Alexander

The roof line of Scotty’s Castle shows the Spanish Moorish influences, Dave Alexander

The style chosen for Valley Ranch complex can be called a number of different things. Some have called it Spanish Colonial Revival; others Spanish Mediterranean. Other have said the Ranch was modeled after a Spanish Villa or Hacienda, while others still have preferred to cite its Spanish Moorish influences. Bessie Johnson liked to call it “Spanish Provincial.” Albert Johnson followed the lead established by the architect himself, who simply termed it, “The Spanish Style.”

Working conditions under Construction Superintendent Thompson varied. For the first several years under his supervision an eight-hour day was the standard. In March 1929, however, a nine hour day was instituted, and in response, several Indians quit. The construction season varied somewhat from year to year. Generally, the Indians began working in September and the white crew started work in October. Construction was temporarily suspended every year because of the summer heat from two to four weeks. Sometimes the winter cold or heavy snow would force Thompson to halt work until conditions Improved. Winter shutdowns of this type did not occur every year and generally did not exceed a week in duration.

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