Castle of kook
Hardee County fortress built by consumate tinkerer
Howard Solomon and his castle. OSVALDO PADILLA / FLORIDA WEEKLY
North of Lee County, along the winding country road called U.S. 17, past the small Fort Ogden post office, past the TV repair shop in Nocotee that’s only open on Wednesdays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to noon, through downtown Arcadia, past live oaks and cattle, past vultures tearing ravenously at a pig carcass on the side of the road, past more orange fields and a few turns, there is Solomon’s Castle.
The castle, built by one man’s imagination and his own two hands, is a big piece of trash art. The exterior panels are made from discarded aluminum printing plates from the local newspaper. Their reflective surface help keep the place cool. The walls in the gift shop, which sits at ground level near Horse Creek, are made of Styrofoam. The shop is prone to flooding, and it’s easier to wash off the Styrofoam than to replace drywall.
Everywhere one sets his or her eyes, from the floor to the ceiling, is made by Howard Solomon. He lives in this place with his wife. The castle and grounds are also open to the public — a decidedly anti-theme park monument to ingenuity and engineering, creativity and kookiness.
Top: Howard Solomon describes “Evil Cornevil,” the motorcycle he built from a corn planter.
The castle’s towers peek up through the thick air into a blinding sky. There are only about a dozen guests on this day. Business usually slows to a trickle during the summer months, so the castle closes from July through September. During season, there are hundreds of visitors daily. They pay the $10 admission ($4 for kids) to wander through the museum and nature walk that Mr. Solomon has carved out on his 90-acre tract in Hardee County.
The museum is a collection of oil cans and soda bottles, metal gears and pieces of wood, transformed into moving, intricate sculptures.
Above: Cat with a Heart On is a top seller.
Daily, Mr. Solomon, or whoever is guiding the tour through the art exhibit, tells the same jokes. He acknowledges the winces and blank stares like a consummate vaudevillian.
“We have a policy of no apologies,” he says after delivering a line that garners no response.
Almost every piece of art has a pun for a punch line.
“That’s a half fish, half woman, half man,” he says standing before a metal sculpture made from discarded scraps. “We call it F.O. Merman. “This here’s the Mute Lute.” He says, holding up a tiny lute with silent strings. “This is for the person who likes to strum but can’t stand the sound.”
Moving through a narrow doorway, one is out of the exhibit and in his living area. There’s little difference. Everything is a testament to his skill as a builder and a witness to his warped sense of humor. He picks up a small piece of painted wood with wheels made from knitting needles. He put this toy car together when he was 4 years old. Since then, he has never stopped tinkering — seeing objects not as they are, but as what they could be.
FRight: The entrance to Solomon’s Castle. OSVALDO PADILLA / FLORIDA WEEKLY
There’s a trap door in the floor where “the babysitter” lives. He lifts a square where the rug has been cut and there is a ghoulish, bloated mannequin-woman’s head peering up from the top of steps that lead to a basement. On the way to the kitchen, he remarks, this is just a “plane” wall. The wall, or course, is covered with all manner of woodworking planes. Off to one side of the kitchen there is a hexagonal metal structure that fits inside of a hole in the ceiling. Mr. Solomon steps inside and demonstrates his one-man elevator. The car battery-powered device whirrs loudly on its way up to the master bedroom.
The Ala-shmo, a re-creation of the Alamo, a New York jazz man made from wood, Dr. Kevorkian’s dualling pistols, a train made from discarded pop-tops.
Across from the castle is the Boat in the Moat. The handmade wooden ship sits in a moat created when the fill dirt was dug out for the castle. Inside, Mr. Solomon’s daughter and son-in-law run a restaurant serving homemade dishes. Diners walk past and ogle Mr. Solomon. He’s a celebrity in this place. The small-framed man with a white goatee and a sailor’s cap smiles back.
He’s been smiling since the day he arrived here in 1972. That’s when the artist from New York who had run a gallery in the Bahamas and another in Miami began to build his kingdom. His only set of plans was in his head, until he was forced to sketch out a diagram of the structure on the back of a placemat for the sake of the building department.
“My friends’ parents wouldn’t let them come here,” says his daughter, Alane. “It wasn’t because we were Jewish. It was because he was this crazy artist.”
Since those days, the southern folk who populate the small town of Ona where the castle is located have come to terms with the northeastern artist who has carved out a piece of paradise for himself among the ranch homes and citrus fields. On this day, some neighbor friends drop off homemade dumplings for the Solomon family.
After a hearty lunch, Mr. Solomon keeps moving, showing off his sprawling workshop, a garage containing fully restored antique cars and a re-creation of the facade of the Alamo (which he calls the “Alashmo”) that he built. Beyond the facade, inside the structure, is still more artwork.
“I’m slowing down,” he says, acknowledging the aches of old age and arthritis as he keeps moving, anxious to show off yet another room, another carving or another painting.
in the know
Solomon’s Castle is closed July through September. It’s a good idea to call ahead.
4533 Solomon Rd., Ona, Fla. >>Cost:
$10 for adults, $4 for children under 12 >>Info:
(863) 494-6077 >>Accommodations:
The Blue Moon room in the east tower of the castle sleeps two adults. The Peace River campground and the Quilter’s Inn bed and breakfast are nearby. >>Website: www.solomonscastle.org