Off the beaten path in central Florida David and I were surprised to discover a 12,000 square foot castle, a 65 foot long replica of a Spanish galleon, and a four-story lighthouse. No, we were not at Disney World near Orlando. We were about 50 miles east of Bradenton, near the small town of Ona, Florida. “Solomon’s Castle,” as this attraction is called, is the life work of Howard Solomon, an internationally renowned artist.
Born in New York, Howard Solomon was not a good student and as a child he was very bored in school. He said that he just wanted to make things. In the tenth grade, he was expelled and was enrolled in a technical school where he learned to be a machinist and a draftsman. Although he never graduated, the skills that he learned proved to be critical to his artistic production.
He moved south and lived in St. Petersburg, Florida before he moved to the Bahamas for seven years where he was a cabinet maker. Upon his return to the United States, he went looking for some property to purchase where there was “warm weather, cheap land, and open spaces.” He purchased a large tract of land in central Florida in 1972. Unbeknownst to him, this property was swamp land and prone to flooding. As recently as 2017, when hurricane Irma came through, there was 38” of standing water in the lower level of Solomon’s home. Because of the frequent flooding, the lower level walls are actually filled with styrofoam rather than sheet rock since it can be replaced easily.
Howard Solomon decided to build his home vertically and to shape it like a castle since as they say, “a man’s home is his castle.” The lower level has his workshop and his living quarters are on the upper levels of the castle. While he was building the Castle, he found out that the newspaper in Wauchula used aluminum printing plates to print the weekly newspaper. These plates were discarded after each printing so he used them on the exterior of his castle. The castle has several turrets, towers, and also a dungeon.
Solomon was always a person that had to be creating things and he also had boundless energy. Our tour guide said that he slept only about two hours per night. He would work a full day as a cabinet maker or sandblaster and then come home and work for hours on his castle, other building projects on his property, or his artwork.
Given that he wanted to be a comedy writer. He loved “puns” and would use them constantly in his everyday conversation. This love of humor is evident in his artwork as well. For example, he would build a “Car with a V8 engine” made out of V8 juice cans. “The Tuna Band” was a band crafted out of metal that incorporated Starkist Tuna cans.
Howard recycled, reused, and repurposed many materials not only in his construction but also in his artwork. He used oil drums, lawnmower parts and motors, gears, etc. as the building blocks for many of his metal creations. He worked with a number of different media: metals, paper mache, wire, stained glass, wood, glass etching, and paint. Our tour guide provided us with a rapid fire journey through the Castle that contains hundreds of pieces of Howard’s creations. Some displays weigh hundreds of pounds, some reach the ceiling, and almost all were made with recycled materials. It seemed that most every inch of the space is occupied with pieces made of steel drums, re-bar, tin, paper, or glass. The castle has more than 80 stained glass windows, many metal sculptures, and wooden montages. About his artwork, Howard Solomon says that: “The common thread of my art is I have to keep my hands busy.”
One of the fascinating things that we learned is that Howard Solomon constructed the Castle by himself. He was a man of slight build but he was determined to do everything himself. To help him regain his stamina and strength after his first heart surgery, he decided to build a 65 foot long replica of a Spanish galleon in the swamp beside the castle. Like with the castle, he did not have any helpers. He even drove in the pilings himself. The boat now houses the restaurant called “The Boat in the Moat.” After returning home from his second heart surgery, he built a lighthouse called “Lily Light” next to the boat. This four-story lighthouse has stained glass windows that depict several lighthouses located along the Florida coast. The lighthouse serves as additional seating for the restaurant as well.
On site, there is also a separate building that houses a gallery of his most recent artwork. Included in that collection is “transportation related artwork to compliment his collection of 13 pre-1935 automobiles.” This fascinating and unassuming artist continued to build things with his hands until his death in 2016.
David and I ate at the Boat in the Moat Restaurant and we thought the food was very good. We learned that there are many local people regularly who come here to eat as well. You do not have to pay admission to dine there or to visit the Tree Top Gift Shop next to the restaurant. To tour the Castle and to see the Gallery, you must pay for a tour. Unfortunately, photos are not allowed inside the Castle, so we do not have pictures of most of his artwork. If you want to spend the night in the Castle, they have the Blue Moon Room that you can reserve. Solomon’s Castle is open from 11 a.m. – 4 p.m. Tuesdays – Sundays. Note that it is closed August and September. Also, they do not accept credit cards. You must pay via cash or check only. There is an ATM available on site.
We lingered for a long time in the outdoor seating after lunch listening to the live music and enjoying the cool breezes. This is not the Castle that you would associate with Florida. Solomon’s Castle was built on acres of quite remote land, that the locals call “Old Florida”, and was built by a man who never intended for his home to become a tourist attraction. Nevertheless, his vision and his unique artistic skills resulted in one anyway.