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Casa Grande

Once thought to be the work of the Aztecs, this 600-year-old tower of mud was called the Palace of Montezuma, which is not to be confused with Montezuma Castle to the north or Montezuma Well even farther. (Apparently, the Spanish thought this Montezuma guy really got around.) But once it was realized that Native Americans were responsible, the name given to it by earlier discoverers was adopted: Casa Grande, or the "Big House."

It was the first archeological site to be preserved by the federal government and has been laboriously maintained for over a hundred years. Today, it's a

National Monument deemed worthy of a museum, guided tours, and picnic facilities. And yet nobody knows what it is.

Overlooking a two-acre compound that includes several smaller structures, Casa Grande has still to reveal its intended function. Could it have been a fort? Maybe it was a temple or a home for holy men. A school or a center of trade, perhaps. Some say it was just a place to store grain. Everyone appears oddly certain that a nearby oval pit was a court for playing some unknown ballgame, but they can't decide what Casa Grande was for. Even the National Park Service literature admits bewilderment: "Why did the Hohokam build this unique structure? …We may never know."

To our knowledge, the Hohokam Indians, who were responsible for this…watchtower? museum of sand?…never built anything larger. Constructed using 35 tons of caliche, it originally stood a full four stories tall. Its lower walls are four feet thick, the doorways had to be accessed using ladders, and it was apparently important enough to protect with a seven-foot-high barrier. Still, as far as we know, it may have been a funnel-cake stand.

Of course, when a prehistoric ruin remains so mysterious, somebody always has to turn to the default: the astronomical calendar. Frank Pinkley, who served as Casa Grande's custodian in the early 1900s, noticed holes in the building's east wall, through which the sun shone on March 7 and October 7 each year. These, he told visitors, were used to determine the dates of ceremonies. Furthermore, when he noticed more holes in the north wall, he concocted a sacred ritual by which priests would instruct tribal youth to look out through the openings as part of an initiation. According only to Pinkley's imagination, the priests would then go outside, hold bowls of water up to the holes to reflect the night sky and trick the youth

into believing the priests had "called down the stars." It was later discovered that these northern holes had been drilled by staff members during preservation work.

Perhaps more amazing than Casa Grande itself is the enormous roof that shades it. Built in 1932, it towers 69 feet high and covers more than 8,000 square feet, making it so imposing that it's practically an attraction on its own—the World's Largest Awning. It was almost replaced in the ’50s, when someone invited R. Buckminster Fuller to a design a transparent, air-conditioned geodesic dome to encase the ruins, but nothing ever came of it. Today, believe it or not, the canopy is being considered for its own nomination to the National Register of Historic Places.

With its steel construction, its integrated water-drainage system, its grounded lightning rod, and its capability to withstand hurricane-force winds, the roof should outlast the ruins themselves. Perhaps someday, millennia from now, the caliche will have eroded away and future explorers will ponder the ancient purpose of this, the Umbrella Grande.

Weird Arizona


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