"We build as fancy leads..."
For Johnson and his construction team, transforming his Death Valley land holdings into the estate that stands today was no easy feat. The site, at 3,000 feet, is nestled between the scorching desert and towering mountains. The engineer envisioned a practical complex using innovative technology and alternative sources of energy in the spring-fed canyon.
Charles Alexander MacNeilledge, a Los Angeles architect, captured Johnson's vision and oversaw the design. Close to 100 crew, most local Shoshone Timbisha Indians were hired. Material was hauled to the site in trucks from the Bonnie Claire railroad station, located 18 miles from Grapevine Canyon. The existence of the railroads and basic road system facilitated the movement of construction tools and materials through the seemingly remote surroundings. Creating the Johnsons' dream home took many years of hard labor and close to $2 million dollars.
Work began on the Johnsons' permanent vacation retreat in 1922. After completing a few harsh-looking buildings that disrupted the landscape's tranquility, laborers remodeled the estate in the Spanish Colonial Revival style. Johnson employed many workers for this daunting project, including local Timbisha Shoshone men. A high turnover rate may be indicative of more than just the extreme natural environment. Workers were immediately fired if caught violating any of Johnson's strict set of rules.
The house has thick walls and deep-set windows so that heat doesn't penetrate. While it looks like adobe, in fact, the house is wood framed with stucco. The walls were filled with insulation that keeps the house cool in the blistering heat.
The complete vision for Death Valley Ranch was never fully realized. A land dispute with the federal government caused Johnson to abruptly halt construction in 1931. Even though he was able to regain private ownership of his vacation home in 1937, Johnson could not accumulate the necessary funds or energy to execute the Castle's finishing touches. An unfinished pool and other incomplete landscape features will forever expose the abrupt end of construction at Scotty's Castle.