One Man’s Castle

They say that everyone has their ideal castle. In the case of Howard Solomon it is clear. He built the castle of his dreams. Now it’s on show for anyone who wants to visit.

I think I would have enjoyed meeting Howard. He sounds like an interesting bird. His castle is a reflection of his dreams and that makes him all the more interesting.

Our friends are always trying to show us around Florida. We bike and walk the sights and scenes. When they invited us to see Solomon’s Castle we were on board as usual (we rarely turn them down). It sounded intriguing. We had no expectations and if you search on line there’s very little to glean.

Our private tour (we are a group of ten as our hosts are mindful of distancing) starts at 10 am. we are 90 min away so we have to be on the road at 8:30. That’s early for us … we savour our bed time. But Rudy sets the alarm (secretly I think he likes the early wake ups especially when it’s on someone else’s schedule) and we start the process. It’s a slow go for me. I’d rather stay in bed. But we muster. Ugh.

I snooze on the ride there. Our destination is Ona Florida and there’s no major highways to get there. It’s a scenic route to the middle of nowhere. We pull into the parking lot and our group is gathering. There’s our regular friends and another couple from St Pete’s. The husband is a retired oncologist; he’s had his vaccinations so I find his constant cough annoying rather than threatening. When we walk from the parking area to the ticket office it occurs to me that we are in a weird place.

There’s a castle which looks like it’s made from tinfoil and beyond it is a ship (I would describe it as a mini Noah’s ark) and other buildings behind it. Mr Solomon had a vision and we were in the midst of it. Our tour guide met us at the castle door which was flanked by knights in metal holding swords. We stepped inside the foyer as she pointed out the handmade stain glass windows all depicting nursery rhymes. I liked the cow jumping over the moon. As we stood in the main front room it occurred to me that there was zero natural light and a dank (think moist basement) odour. Our guide tells us that the place is set directly on swamp land beside a creek. When the property was purchased in the month of March many years ago, it was dry and lush. When the rainy season came the creek filled and flooded the property. The guide lamented the various hurricanes that caused water to rise and fill the castle. “See the water marks on the wall? ….”. Totally explained the smell.

Each room was filled with the whimsical creations of the artist using wood and assorted scraps of metal and other junk. As a cabinet maker by trade he used a lot of wood. His wooden paintings were very intricate and elaborate in some cases. According to our guide she was reciting the tour spiel in accordance with the artists written directives. It turns out he had a quirky sense of humour and especially liked to play on words. For example he created a cow sculpture using scrap metal; the udder was a gear wheel (round with notched outer edge and a hole in the middle). The hole was there so the cow could produce “whole” milk. Groan. There were many of these puns throughout the tour. The artist was very particular and in control of every aspect.

We wind through his house (which is now a museum curated by his children) and each room is cluttered with punny creations. The mans mind moved quickly and in staccato as evidenced by the pieces ranging from tiny statues to giant sized animals weighing in excess of 400 lbs! Quite breathtaking and disturbing at the same time. This artist held down full time work and managed commissioned art pieces and personal projects in between. Apparently he couldn’t sit still. Ever.

After the first tour segment we went to “the boat” for lunch. You could eat on the boat or in the jungle grotto outside which we chose. The menu offered a wide range of comfort food items. It was as delicious as expected and the desserts were heavenly. After lunch, propelled by our new energy, we walked to the “barn” for the second part of the tour. As we walked through the open pasture (yes, there’s animals and stuff) I realized what a sunny hot day it was. The blazing sun was baking us at 31C.

At the barn we are ushered inside (whew there’s ac) to the first chamber. It turns out that Mr Solomon was, in addition to his artistic flair, also an astute business man. He predicted the crash of 2008 and liquidated all of his stocks to purchase antique cars. He only purchased those carefully restored to their natural state. Wow. Scattered among the room are also model airplanes and other modes of transport built by the artist. In his typical punny way, he created a “bar car” – literally a car with the back seat set up to display bottles of booze. Clever.

There were about 12 cars in total and some of them had license plates. Some had crank shafts! And a couple had rumble seats (also known as the mother in law seat because of the general discomfort … your mother in law would only want to try it once!) The earliest Fords were only available in one colour: black. Then years later 4 other colours were added. It was an interesting lesson in the progression of Ford (the artists personal favourite) auto manufacturing.

At the end of the tour we part ways with our group. Some of them are heading on to the phosphate museum. Apparently it was a big industry in the day. Unfortunately (fortunately) we had to go home to our girl Molly.

Looking forward to the next adventure!

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