Solomon’s Castle, a palace hidden in a Florida swamp

Solomon's Castle is silver plated, and features stained glass created by Howard Solomon.
Solomon’s Castle is silver plated, and features stained glass created by Howard Solomon.

ONA, Fla.
There are roadside attractions that are centres of power, author Neil Gaiman says. His book American Gods takes us to a few of them, and we’ve visited some ourselves, like the House on the Rock and Rock City, and they are truly powerful in their kitsch.

Then there’s Solomon’s Castle, which isn’t in American Gods, but easily could be.

The silver palace in the middle of a Florida swamp is the brainchild of writer, sculptor, and lifelong eccentric Howard Solomon, who built the castle’s outer walls of old typesetting plates, news-side-in. There are metal-sheathed guards, and a full-size boat in the boggy “moat.” Everything, from the stained glass to the strange menagerie we will encounter inside, was created and installed by Solomon over decades. He died in August at 82, but his wife still lives in the castle.

Behind the castle is the full-size Boat in the Moat, which features a restaurant and more puns.
Behind the castle is the full-size Boat in the Moat, which features a restaurant and more puns.

Our tour guide, Ricky, is scripted within an inch of his life, and he spends an hour blasting facts like buckshot. He kind of warns us about the puns.

It seems Solomon was some sort of three-dimensional-word genius, weaving language and sculpture and play to justify his junk collecting.

Ricky shows us a three-foot sculpture of a woman called Busting Out. She’s just been released from prison and she represents freedom, he says. He tells us what old car part and found treasures went into making her, ending with the bicycle chains that are her hair.

“We call this a permanent permanent,” Ricky says with an eyebrow wiggle.

Howard Solomon's garboyle.
Howard Solomon’s garboyle.

Next up is a half-size truck that Solomon let his grandchildren play in. “The fish market truck is covered with the same stuff the castle is built with, only it’s painted black. Howard said it would take three people to operate this thing: Somebody to steer it, another one to push it, another one to run alongside barkin’ at the tires.”

There’s a selection of guns and rifles, each with their own pun. “I asked Howard, how come this rifle’s got a clock in there?” Ricky says. “He said, ‘It’s a Minuteman rifle. … It’s for killin’ time’.”

It would take days to examine the curiosities Solomon created in this sanctuary that he called his time castle, where it’s okay to touch things so long as you’re respectful, and you can get up close to see each piece of flaking rust or to peer more closely at masterful wooden reproductions of classical art.

Howard Solomon, a self-portrait in wood.
Howard Solomon, a self-portrait in wood.

I ask Ricky where Solomon found his material and he laughs. “Anywhere and everywhere. People’ll’d bring him stuff.” Then he’s back on script.

“The garboyle over there, guys, I had not a clue what it was when i got to the castle. The garboyle is 800 pieces of metal. They say it lays eggs, it eats the eggs, and then it becomes … eggstinct.

“Now let me introduce you over here to Lionel.” Without skipping a beat he’s moved on to the life-size metal lion that’s leaning toward us. “Now, if Howard was here, he’d let you know it’s got two glass eyes up front and two steel balls in the back. Then he’d ask you, ‘Know what this is?’ “ He’s holding up a baseball bat that was lying at Lionel’s feet. “No, ladies, it’s not a ball-buster. Howard would let you know.

“That’s the Lion’s Club.”

Lionel, who comes with his own club.
Lionel, who comes with his own club.

The Lion’s Club indeed. If you have the stomach for the puns, Solomon’s Castle is tucked away in the backroads of inland Florida. We had an adventure trying to see this place five years ago and we’ve been wanting to come back ever since. It was absolutely worth the wait.
4533 Solomon Rd., 863-494-6077

Overstimulated at St. Louis’s City Museum

ST. LOUIS, Mo. – I sat on a rooftop overlooking St. Louis, sipping a Schlafly and wondering how – how?! – I could possibly explain City Museum. And we’d only been there half an hour.

Melani sat in the school bus teetering over the edge of the building and Trev climbed the cage along the edges of a giant dome to the top of St. Louis, swung on a rope 10 storeys up and dithered about the fountain, but I was still trying to figure the whole thing out and so went down a few levels to the museum’s vintage thrift shop, where I didn’t buy a lovely fall coat but did pick up a flannel shirt for the cooler nights ahead.

The next level was a shrine to Discordianism and pinball and art and animatronic fortune tellers. Overstimulated and overamazed, I had a beer and shared a corn dog with Jilly (she had the corn, I had the dog). Later, she and Trev would sculpt with Steve Altom, the Clay Guy, before Trev took a slinky down to the aquarium.

I hate fish, so while Trev snapped pictures of an albino turtle, I refrained from rolling my eyes at the hipster-wannabe in the Occupy Burning Man tee and did another tour of the skate park and the architectural-detail section. I did not have another beer – I had a five-hour drive to Chicago to look forward to once we were done.

It’s like a steampunker threw up in City Museum, what with a wall made of Coke bottles, one made of bread pans and another of old safety-deposit boxes, beside the gear-happy safe door that leads one through a round metal tunnel to another tunnel, this a pyramid of mirrors leading nowhere.

After a roast-beef sandwich eaten on the mezzanine among bejeweled lizards, I was ready for a nap. Somehow, however, I found myself walking through caves and treehouses while Trevor climbed the walls. He climbed all the way up to the rooftop with robot organ music in the background, and came down via the 10-storey slide.

We’d been there for five hours. We hadn’t seen it all. I didn’t – and still don’t – know how to write it all up.