By Frank W. Martin
Updated December 04, 1978 12:00 PM
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When he was growing up on a ranch in Walsh, Colo., Mort Copenhaver dreamed of owning a big house on a cliff overlooking a lake. At 45, the Phoenix dentist has compromised: He gave up the lake, but the house became a bona fide castle. Built 700 feet up the side of Camelback Mountain, it has battlements, 16-foot-high ceilings, six-foot-thick walls, secret passageways, a dungeon and—yes—a drawbridge.

Its furnishings are anything but Gothic. A 15-foot artificial waterfall cascades into the living room. The Jacuzzi in the family room can accommodate 20 bathers, who paddle among palm trees, and a bar. The roof opens with the push of a button to let in the balmy Arizona night.

The garage has room for Copenhaver’s four cars, and the outdoor fountains are more than decorations—they recycle the water used in the solar cooling system. In the foyer stands a suit of 14th-century armor that, appropriately enough, once belonged to fellow castle owner William Randolph Hearst. Unlike Hearst, though, Copenhaver built most of his castle himself with limited funds. Strong-minded and handy with tools, he recalls, “People told me I couldn’t do it. That didn’t sit well with me.”

Copenhaver has had a checkered life. By the time he was 18, he was married and a father. In 1951 he entered Nebraska’s Union College as a predentistry major. “It seemed like a good profession,” he explains with a shrug. Graduating from the University of Kansas City’s dental school, he set up practice in Phoenix in 1961 and was divorced the next year. He caroused with bachelor roommates, competed in ski and speedboat races and managed a Las Vegas marriage to a legal secretary that lasted all of three days.

Copenhaver was financially comfortable when he came upon the two-and-a-half-acre site on Camelback in 1966. It was not level enough for a house—much less a castle—and contractors estimated that it would cost $100,000 just to put in a road.

Copenhaver decided to do it himself. The 6’2″, 190-lb. dentist picked up a jackhammer and went to work on his piece of the rock every day before 6 a.m. to beat the heat. By the end of the year Copenhaver’s road had progressed only a few feet. Legal battles with a neighbor and the city also slowed him. He finally finished it in 1970.

That kind of diligence—and his savvy as a bargain hunter—paid off. Copenhaver operated his own tractors and made a deal with Mexican laborers for minimal wages and board. He traded his professional services with an electrician and a plumber who needed dental work. Acting as his own architect, he recycled the exterior metal scaffolding into balconies, incorporated iron banisters from a demolished theater, bought lighting and bathroom fixtures secondhand. Still, he eventually had to borrow $60,000 from his father to finish the castle, which is appraised at $350,000. He moved in two years ago.

Mort wound up paying a higher price than he had counted on. In 1974 his third wife, Pat Vickrey, took off, partly as a result of his obsession with the castle. Meanwhile he is living with Beverly Rodrigues, 31, a former cosmetics store owner who moved in last year. She shares his affections with the Castle Foundation Inc., which he set up to raise money for those needing costly orthodontic care.

Today Copenhaver admits that having his own castle is right out of Fantasy Island—”if you call it a fantasy to sit in the bedroom and look out over the city.” He is especially grateful to his patients. “They allowed me to pay my bills,” he says, “and they also put up with me coming into the office with crummy clothes and rough hands.”