A Weekend in Miami Without Night Clubs – Part 3

The Coral Castle south of Miami is a unique home built by a single man over almost three decades.
The Coral Castle south of Miami is a unique home built by a single man over almost three decades.

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 Leeskalnin was the eccentric creator of Rock Castle near Miami.
Ed Leeskalnin was the eccentric creator of Coral Castle near Miami.

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).

Ed liked his privacy, but he also liked people to support his project, so he welcomed visitors.
Ed liked his privacy, but he also liked people to support his project, so he welcomed visitors – for a price.

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.

Ed's inspiration came from the solar system.
Ed’s inspiration came from the solar system.

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

A Weekend in Miami Without Night Clubs – Part 2

Monkey Jungle in South Dade welcomes hundreds of animal lovers each year.
Monkey Jungle in South Dade welcomes hundreds of animal lovers each year.

No matter how many birthdays you’ve had, a weekend visit to the Miami area is not complete without a visit to Monkey Jungle, a lush primate paradise located off U.S. 1 in South Dade County. Advertising promotes the 30-acre reserve as a place “where humans are caged and monkeys run wild” and compared to most zoos, the layout definitely brings you closer to the critters.

Monkey Jungle has been around for decades. It started by chance in 1933 when an animal behaviorist named Joseph DuMond released six monkeys into the wilds of South Florida. The area has since morphed into a rare protected habitat for endangered primates and is the only one in the United States that the public can visit.

The star of the show at Monkey Jungle is a clean freak gorilla who only eats food tossed to him in a clean paper bag.
The star of the show at Monkey Jungle is a clean freak gorilla who only eats food tossed to him in a fresh paper bag.

A total of 30 species live at Monkey Jungle, including gibbons, orangutans, black-capped capuchins and spider monkeys, plus a gorilla that is so picky about his treats that he won’t eat anything that isn’t thrown to him in a clean paper bag. Java monkeys are skilled divers and underwater swimmers in the wild, and special scheduled feedings allow them to show off those skills. The golden lion tamarin is native to the Brazilian jungle and threatened with extinction. But they are active and abundant at Monkey Jungle, which is participating in an international effort to save the tiny creatures.

Monkey Jungle is located at 14805 Southwest 216th St. in Miami, a location that is still slightly off the beaten path. The park is open daily from 9:30 a.m. until 5 p.m. with the ticket office closing at 4 p.m. Admission is $29.95 for adults, $23.95 for children between ages 3 and 9 and $27.95 for seniors over 65. Children under 3 get in free. There is no charge for parking.

Food treats allow Java monkeys to show off their diving and swimming skills - or not.
Food treats allow Java monkeys to show off their diving and swimming skills – or not.

A Weekend in Miami Without Night Clubs – Part 1

Beautiful Vizcaya beckons the Florida tourist.
Beautiful Vizcaya beckons the Florida tourist.

There are plenty of things to do in Miami that don’t involve dancing, dining and shopping. One example is a visit to the beautiful Vizcaya Museum and Gardens on Biscayne Bay, an unexpected gift to tourism from a man who simply wanted to live well and be warm in the winter.

It started in 1912 when James Deering of Chicago, like most wealthy people of his era, craved a Florida vacation home. But not just any old condo would do. He wanted to showboat, and between 1912 and 1922, the executive at International Harvest built a European-inspired mansion, complete with formal gardens and a private lagoon, on 180 acres bordering Biscayne Bay. Deering dubbed the home Vizcaya, the same name as a northern Spanish province.

New York artist and interior designer Paul Chalfin supervised the momentous project, using more than 1,000 workers to create Deering’s dream of an antique Italian estate. Deering first saw the completed mansion – decorated with priceless treasures – on Christmas Day 1916 when Chalfin staged an elaborate theatrical ceremony as Deering sailed up to the new abode in a Venetian gondola.

Water features, water falls and water fountains are abundant.
Water features, water falls and water fountains are abundant.

The mansion has more than 30 public rooms decorated with 15th through 19th century furnishings and art. There are a dozen rooms for servants, although some lived at other locations on the property. The estate also features a manual pipe organ, tea house, garden theater, plentiful statuary, courtyards, loggias, bridges, canals, fountains and water features, an indoor/outdoor swimming pool, terraces, grottos and one room dedicated to arranging flowers.

Deering stayed at his Florida get-away about four months each year, but between 16 and 18 staff members, including a French chef, lived at the estate year-round. The lavish gardens were created by Chaflin and landscape architect Diego Suarez over a seven-year period. More than two dozen gardeners and security personnel maintained the lush exterior during the owner’s absence.

From 1916 until his death in 1925, Deering used the mansion as his winter residence, hosting parties for film stars, family members and even President Warren G. Harding. Deering reportedly swam in the estate’s luxurious pool only once – while smoking, it was said. Never married, Deering willed the property to two nieces. The heirs attempted to maintain the property, even after damaging hurricanes in 1926 and 1935, but eventually most of the land was sold or donated for development.

Venetian gondolas were a common site at Vizcaya in Deering's Day.
Venetian gondolas were a common sight outside Vizcaya in the day of John Deering.

In 1952, the heirs donated the mansion and gardens to Dade County, for a price below market value, and Vizcaya opened to the public the following year as the county’s art museum. In1955, the county purchased more of the estate’s surrounding property and the heirs donated Vizcaya’s art and furnishings on the condition that the estate be maintained as a public museum.

Today, Vizcaya greets thousands of visitors from around the world. It has been featured in several movies, including Tony Rome, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Any Given Sunday, Bad Boys II and The Money Pit. It is a popular location for romantic weddings, fund-raising galas and special events.

Vizcaya welcomes visitors daily from 9:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. except Tuesdays, Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. Admission to the main house and grounds is $15 for adults and $6 for children age 6 and older. Seniors, students with IDs and visitors in wheelchairs are $10 each. Vizcaya accepts cash, MasterCard, Visa and American Express. By Pat Pape

Vizcaya's gardens are beautifully maintained, and a visit to the estate makes a wonderful way to spend half a day in Miami.
Vizcaya’s gardens are beautifully maintained, and a visit to the estate is a great way to spend a day in Miami.