If you are in South Dade County (visiting the magnificent Monkey Jungle, for example), you must stop by Coral Castle, a 10-acre estate of sorts made entirely of carved coral rock.
The Coral Castle was built single-handedly by Edward Leedskalnin between 1923 and his death in 1951. The “mystery” of the castle is that it consists of more than 1,100 tons of coral rock, each piece carved in totally secrecy using handmade tools. And the creator was no Terminator. Ed was about 5 feet tall and weighed 100 pounds. His stone carvings include a 9-ton gate that moves with just a touch of the finger (but is now locked down because kids kept playing on it), a 5,000-pound, heart-shaped rock table and a Polaris telescope perfectly aligned to the North Star. There is also a functioning rock rocking chair and a giant obelisk weighing 57,000 pounds. Some of the carvings are calibrated to celestial alignments including a functioning sundial that reportedly tells accurate time within two minutes.
So why did Ed spend his life living in what was then a desolate part of Florida, digging rock out of the earth and carving it into unique shapes?
Ed was born in Riga, Latvia in 1887 and became engaged to 16-year-old Agnes Scuffs when he was 26. He referred to her as his “Sweet Sixteen.” Details of the love affair are sketchy. Maybe Agnes loved someone else or perhaps she wanted to be a nun. Or maybe she sensed that Ed had a better-than-average chance of becoming a whack job in later years. Whatever the reason, she backed out of the marriage the day before the wedding, and Ed was inconsolable. Coral Castle is believed to be a monument to the love that might have been.
Born into a family of stone masons, Ed had acquired skills to cut rock, and he obviously figured out how to move it. Talk to the guides who work at the park, and they’ll speculate on how he transported the boulders. A least one guide is a bit skeptical about the “monument to love” story that is part of the attraction’s publicity. What is truly a mystery is how Ed managed to create his unique rock home/compound without injuring or killing himself in the process.
Today’s Coral Castle does not sit on its original site. Ed’s first stone house was in Florida City, but in 1936, Ed learned that a planned subdivision would be built nearby. So he moved his existing rock structures 10 miles to a plot near the current Miami suburb of Homestead. That task took three years and help from friends with a truck (Ed never owned a car and went everywhere on his bicycle).
In 1940, when the carvings were at their new home, Ed constructed a coral wall around them. It is 8 feet tall, 4 feet wide, 3 feet thick and weighs more than 58 tons. In one corner of the compound, a two-story column dubbed The Tower housed his workshop and his down-scale living quarters (Ed had no running water or electricity). Despite his reported desire for privacy, Ed encouraged visitors to tour the Coral Castle for fees of 10 or 25 cents. It is said he always wore a suit, white shirt and tie when greeting guests – no matter what the Florida temperature happened to be. Ed also kept extensive notes about magnetism, gravity and other scientific subjects and wrote pamphlets on these topics. Although nothing he wrote has changed modern science text books, his pamphlets can be purchased in the Coral Castle gift shop.
In December 1951, Ed fell ill. He posted a sign on the door of Coral Castle saying “going to the hospital” and took a bus to a Miami hospital where he died three days later. He was 64 years old. Ed is gone but Bill Idol lives on. The Grammy-nominated rocker wrote and recorded a song, “Sweet Sixteen,” as a tribute to Ed and his lost love. Idol’s music video was shot on location at the mysterious Coral Castle.
Coral Castle Museum is at 28655 South Dixie Highway in Miami. It is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and stays open till 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. The cost of admission ranges from $7 to $15, but kids under age 7 are free. If you want to stage an event at this unique venue, give them a call at (305) 248-6345. I don’t suggest a wedding. By Pat Pape