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UPDATE: Glendora's Rubel Castle named National Historic Landmark (Photos)

by Kevin Ferguson | Off-Ramp®

The Rubel Castle is constructed out of concrete, scrap steel, rocks and other items that Michael Rubel collected. Mae Ryan/KPCC

UPDATE 12/26/2013: Off-Ramp producer Kevin Ferguson got an email recently from Scott Rubel: "We got our official letter last month and I can't believe it's finally happened. We are really a National Historic Landmark now."

Made of leftover bottles, found motorcycles, rocks, concrete and countless other pieces of junk, Glendora's Rubel castle is one of Southern California's oddest buildings — designed by one man with the help of a community, it's now well on its way to becoming a state historic landmark.

In a secluded, residential part of Glendora, Rubel Castle is a triumph in do-it-yourselfness, a paean to go-it-alone outsider architecture: clock towers, cannons, and caves dot the two-acre property. 

Rubel Castle is the brain child of Michael Rubel, a beloved and eccentric native Glendoran. Rubel died in 2007, but during his tenure at the castle he was interviewed by California's beloved and eccentric Huell Howser, twice:

Started in 1959, Rubelia — as it's also known — had humble origins. It was originally an orange packing farm that a then 18-year-old Michael Rubel had purchased. Michael and his family soon moved in, converting packing warehouses into  sprawling people houses, where Dorothy Rubel, his socialite, actress mother, played hostess constantly, sometimes to hundreds of people.

I went on a tour of the property with Scott Rubel, Michael's nephew. The packing house was one of our first stops. It's a warehouse converted into one of longest living rooms I've ever seen.

"It's just made for storing oranges, basically, and processing them," said Scott. "And on the left side are four big refrigerators which, when my uncle moved in, those became his bedroom."

The Tin Palace, as the home was known back then, entertained guests like Alfred Hitchcock, Jack Benny, Bob Hope, even Dwight Eisenhower. While the parties were surely thrilling for Dorothy and her guests, Michael Rubel couldn't sleep. So away from the original houses, he built a house of his own, this one entirely out of used bottles.

"All this bottle stuff started with my grandmother's parties," said Scott Rubel. "Bottles were piling up outside, and when my uncle started to want to build inside the reservoir. He first dug this tunnel and made this wall out of bottles. And the first structure he built was the bottle house, in 1968."

Inside of a huge emptied out concrete reservoir, the house combined Michael's longing for peace and quiet with another passion of his: amateur construction. Even as a child, Rubel would make castles and forts in the junk yard near his home.

The house was just the beginning. Over the decades, Michael Rubel, along with friends and family built one of California's strangest structures. Combining manmade objects collected far and wide with thousands of river rocks and tons of concrete.

Rubel Castle sits inside that reservoir with about 60 rooms, total. We entered the castle through a tunnel made entirely of recycled bottles and concrete. Christmas lights dangled across the ceiling. After peeking inside the print and machine shops, we ended up inside the clock tower — the castle's tallest structure at about seven stories high. 

"This clock came from a church in the 1890s," said Scott Rubel. "The bells up on top are 3,000 pounds, the biggest one—and the smallest is about 2,000."

How was he able to do all this?

"Back then it was a lot easier. You couldn't do it now," said Rubel. "It would cost money, for one thing, and picking up rocks is more restricted. We used to be able to go out just about anywhere and find these river rocks. And we had a little convoy of trucks where we'd pick a few truckloads of rock and then come back here and dump them."

Rubel says his uncle was a cheerful man, and did his best not to share with his friends and family the  problems he faced with the city.

"The city would bring inspectors up here," said Rubel. "And they'd always go away shaking their heads, not knowing quite what to do."

But for five people on the property, the castle is more than just history — it's also home. The castle includes apartments, artist studios, printing presses, pottery studios. Artist and librarian Sandy Krause lives inside the castle. 

"I had been on a tour here many years ago," she said. "And during that tour someone mentioned people lived here."

Krause says she never forgot that. She made friends at the Glendora historical society — the group that oversees the castle — and when she learned there was a vacancy, Krause did what anybody reasonable person would do: move into the castle

The Rubel family expects the castle will receive its official historical status in October. If all goes well, Rubel Castle will become a national historic landmark. 

If you'd like to take a look at the castle yourself, visit the Glendora Historical Society to find out information on tours.

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