On the recommendation of Max Rodriguez, a really good friend and one of our morning walking buddies, we took a trip to Solomon's Castle today,
The bearded stranger arrived in the Hardee County hinterlands in 1972, his life's work packed into three moving vans. The cattle ranchers and citrus farmers didn't know what to make of him at first. Painfully thin with fidgety hands, the man told jokes like he was Henny Youngman and Milton Berle combined. He was Jewish and from New York. The natives wondered about his intentions. Rumors swirled.
"Howard was different," says Dean Murphy, who was a boy living nearby when Howard Solomon arrived 42 years ago. "Before, it was all farmers and ranchers, redneck types. And here comes Howard, an artist with a totally different way of life. People had all kinds of off-the-wall theories about him. They wanted to know what he was doing."
Solomon had been living in the Bahamas. A friend told him about Hardee County because it had everything that Solomon wanted: Warm weather, open spaces and cheap land. He set up shop on the edge of a swamp and began building a house with his own hands.
With constant tinkering, it grew into the 12,000 sq.ft. Solomon's Castle and has become a roadside attraction near the town of Ona, about 50 miles east of Bradenton. The castle is covered in a shiny skin of repurposed aluminum printing plates, pressed to look like chiseled stone.
The broad, sweeping brick walkway that leads to it is impressive,
until you discover that the "bricks" have simply been painted on poured cement. He made a crude, handmade stamp; the whole process only took a couple of hours. The "tiles" on the interior floor were made in the same manner.
Whereas other men fight and die for their castles, Howard Solomon fights to keep from laughing at it.
A Bed of Flowers
The structure features multiple towers and turrets, a dungeon, a drawbridge, a lighthouse and a wide moat, where Solomon has built a 65-foot-long replica of a Spanish galleon.
The ship's interior houses the Boat in the Moat, a restaurant run by his daughter Alane and her husband, Dean – the same Dean who, in 1972, was a boy when Solomon came to town.
Framing the entrance are two suits of armor, one black and one white, representing
"Knight Light" (Day)
"Night Knight" (Night)
The castle is packed with decades of Solomon's uncategorizable art: Unfortunately, pictures are not allowed inside the castle so the following interior pictures werre lifted from the Internet. Is is worth noting that all of the items were made from "repurposed" discarded items.
Howard had a great sense of humor. Not only are the titles of many of his works very funny; but the narrative that goes along with the tour, most of which came from Howard himself, is filled with one pun after another and jokes galore.If you visit one of the short You Tube videos
you can get a first hand vies of the inside of the castle and hear some of the clever descriptions (admittedly, like with all puns, some will make you smile while others may elicit a groan)
Note (above) the wooden relief reproductions of several Picasso paintings
Above animals made with discaraded wire coat hangers
Lion copied from a statue
Chair made from over 80 "empty" beer cans
Howard's work includes several three-dimensional recreations of Norman Rockwell's art. The photo below shows Howard's rendition of Rockwell's cover from the July 8, 1939 Saturday Evening Post entitled "100 Years of Baseball."
After a friend gave Solomon a large chandellier, and finding no place in the castle to hang it, he built a six-sided foyer with a vaulted ceiling
and a three-sided entrance door
Living and dining room
There is a sculpture of a rhinoceros made from five oil drums; carved reliefs based on various masterworks, such as Pablo Picasso's Woman in a Hat; all manner of wooden gnomes based on puns (the "gnome on the range" model, for example, sits on a kitchen stove); objects fashioned from rusty brake shoes, old gears, lawnmower parts and other junkyard debris.
"The common thread of my art," he said "is I have to keep my hands busy."
Physical labor, for him, has been therapeutic. His wife died soon after he moved to Hardee County – he has since remarried four times – and his work on the castle helped him cope. After a first heart surgery, he rebuilt his strength and stamina by building the galleon. Ten years later, after a second heart surgery, he came home and built a four-story lighthouse.
For Solomon, the connection between creating and well-being has existed since he was a child. School was excruciating. He just wanted to make things. His second-grade teacher informed his mother that he was retarded. He moved to a different school, but it didn't matter. He wasn't mentally handicapped. Just bored.
"I was expelled from high school in the 10th grade, and the punishment was they sent me to an industrial school," he says. "That was a lucky break. I learned to be a machinist and a draftsman. I learned about woodworking and sheet metal. But before I graduated, they expelled me because my true calling was being a comedian, and nobody recognized that but me."
There is even humor at the
Throughout the castle are some 80 stained-glass windows, all of which Solomon made himself.
There is a series depicting nursury rhymes … can you figure them out?
The nine planets
The twelve signs of the Zodiac
The Nina and the Pinta
Because Howard bought the antique pre-1935 (the year he was born) vehicles
as an investment and because he was so busy creating all his sculptures, he didn't have time to restore or tinker with them. Therefore, they all had to be in reasonably good condition and not require any further restoration, and they all had to run.
One limited edition Model T in the collection (prodcution no. 11) is identical to another (production no. 19) allegedly sold for a staggering $4.5 million!
Most of the works in the second building are transportation related. The following photo shows Howard's last work completed just before he passed. It is a train engine whose boiler is covered with old, copper printed circuits.
Around the property, there is a short nature trail along a river
Adjacent to the Solomon Caltle property is a pasture which puts to rest the contention that cows, ponioes.donkeys, horses and other farm animals cannot co-exist in the same pasture.
The long drive through mostly cattle country drive was well-worth it …. other than it is currently "love bug" mating season. By the time we got home, the front of our car had removed several hundred copulating paris from the gene pool!