What looks like a foreboding mirage in Los Angeles' backyard, on the edge of the Mojave Desert, is a stone replica of a medieval Irish castle.
It is one of Southern California's most overlooked landmarks, home to such characters as a cowboy star, the builder of Hancock Park and a playboy radio-TV heir.
Secluded on a hilltop nearly a mile off a dirt road and behind a tall, locked wrought-iron gate bearing the name "Rock Castle," the Antelope Valley's most curious architectural secret is a single-turreted granite palace fortified in mystery, tragedy and scandal, its story often known only through a web of rumors.
Some of the features identified with castles are missing: no rolling lawns of green, no drawbridge or moat to ward off attackers. The surrounding land is still almost as raw as it was when a Los Angeles real estate baron who co-founded Hancock Park decided to build this storybook fortress in 1924. It would become known as Shea's Castle, after its builder, Richard Peter Shea.
The estate, which encompasses 512 acres, sits hidden in fairy-tale fashion along a section of the California Aqueduct about 15 miles west of Lancaster, invisible from the nearest thoroughfare, Munz Ranch Road.
It began as a labor of love for Shea's frail, ailing wife, a palace inspired by a painting Shea once saw of a castle near Dublin, Ireland. And when the job was finished, in 1925, he mounted on the castle's entrance a plaque, since vanished, that read, "A dream come true."
The interior walls are raw desert rock, the ceilings are massive hand-hewn beams, and mullioned windows filter the bright sunlight. Over two of its seven fireplaces, Shea installed blue-green rock he imported especially from Ireland. But in its sprawling one-story layout, the castle is more California modern than medieval Irish.
Its remoteness has kept the castle from the public and has fueled speculation about its history. But oral tales from a caretaker-preacher named Wayne Anderson and a booklet compiled by Grace Graham Pickus, whose father-in-law helped build the castle, provide its best history.
In the early 1920s, New York-born Shea was drawn to California and Lancaster by the area's isolation and hopes that the clear, dry air would improve the health of his wife, Ellen.
Flush with cash after subdividing Hancock Park and other wealthy Los Angeles enclaves that sold $56 million worth of property within three years, Shea spent $175,000 on his eight-bedroom, seven-bath, seven-fireplace, two-kitchen castle, a sum that did not include the cost of 1,370 acres.
It was a boost to the local economy. Shea hired more than 100 laborers to quarry thousands of tons of granite from boulders on the property to form the castle's 3- to 5-foot-thick walls. A 20-foot-high stone dam backed up a 10-acre man-made lake, and a stable was built to look like a small castle itself.
Not long after the work of two years was done, the couple moved in. But the 1929 stock market crash sent Shea's finances plummeting, forcing the couple to abandon the castle and move back to Los Angeles. There they rented an apartment on Wilshire Boulevard. Shea borrowed heavily against his castle, and it was taken over by the bank.
In October 1932, Shea's beloved wife died of pernicious anemia, a blood disease, and other complications. Two months later a despondent Shea walked into the ocean and drowned himself. His body was found in the surf near the Venice Pier. Around his neck was a small container holding his wife's ashes. He was 57 years old.
The bank was the castle's second owner. A succession of at least 15 owners and renters over five decades followed. Each left some mark on the castle.
The most celebrated tenant was Roy Rogers, the singing cowboy star of movies and TV, who leased the property for a time and trained his famed horse, Trigger, on the property.
Its most notorious owner was millionaire playboy Tommy Stewart Lee. In 1934 his father, media magnate Don Lee, died, and Tommy Lee inherited a Cadillac dealership and radio and TV stations. Eventually, $10 million in cash also came to him. He spent the money on a racing car career and, in 1948, on Shea's Castle.
When Lee wasn't drag-racing his Alfa Romeo or Ferrari on city streets, he cut a striking figure squiring singers and movie stars like Joan Crawford to the Brown Derby, Ciro's and other Hollywood nightspots. He even opened a talent agency to help some of the aspiring starlets he dated.
Although he drove with gusto and some skill, Lee wrecked a car in 1942 and was left with several smashed vertebrae. The severe pain and resulting insomnia led him to a dependence on painkillers. Although the pain turned his hair gray, the drugs let him keep racing his cars.
Lee had taken his race cars to the Lancaster desert before World War II turned the area into a bombing and gunnery range. Another speed lover, jet jockey Chuck Yeager, would make Muroc Dry Lake famous when he broke the sound barrier flying above the area that would become Edwards Air Force Base.