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Man's home becomes tourist attraction
Cinderella's Castle may be one of the most popular vacation destinations in Florida, but there's another castle, also built on former swamp land and by a man with an active imagination.
It's Solomon's Castle, in no way associated with Disney World. The lesser-known attraction is far off the beaten path and very offbeat in itself.
Sculptor Howard Solomon began building the castle in 1972 as his retirement home, not knowing that it would spin off into a new career that would bring thousands of visitors a year into his living room.
It is not only his home, but also his greatest work of art and a gallery for his sculptures.
``I think of it as a sculpture I live in,'' he says.
The castle is also a centerpiece of an eclectic business that employes three generations of his family.
``I've been working on it for 31 years,'' Solomon says. ``I think of it as a hobby that got out of hand.''
Indeed, Solomon did not just stop at the castle, which is coated in 12,000 square feet of printing press plates discarded by the local newspaper -- the shiny blank sides sparkle in the sun while the old news stories are forever hidden against the structure.
Next to the twin-towered castle is a three-fourths replica of Columbus' sailing ship the Santa Maria that serves as a restaurant, sitting in a moat with a resident alligator. Beyond that is a gift shop and outdoor cafe.
Nearby, Solomon, a skinny man wearing glasses and a floppy hat, is perched about 10 feet above the deck of his latest project. He is building a wooden lighthouse along Horse Creek, where a water moccasin glided below as he hammered away.
The castle, Spanish galleon and lighthouse are tucked away in a quiet part of the Florida peninsula that's far from the crowds and highways. The trip there is a delightful journey through miles of orange groves and cattle ranches. And if you want to stay overnight, there's a bed-and-breakfast built into the castle. The suite contains a full kitchen and satellite TV. The $125 a night charge includes a bottle of wine, a tour of the castle and a full breakfast for two.
It's a different side of Florida that often isn't seen by tourists. The farther away from Interstate 75, the lighter the traffic. An occasional trailer truck loaded with oranges passes in the opposite direction. Wildlife along the way may include vultures and hawks swooping in the air above, or a black racer slithering across the road.
And unlike the garish billboards that lead the way to Orlando's attractions, the turnoff to Solomon's Castle is marked by a small, easily missed white sign simply printed with its name and an arrow.
When guests arrive, they're greeted by an iguana that lives in a circular cage build around a tree in front of the castle. The tour runs about 35 minutes, but visitors can also walk a nature trail lined with Spanish moss-covered live oaks and cypress trees along the creek.
Solomon never intended his home to become a tourist destination.
``I started building the castle and that started attracting people,'' Solomon says. ``It became a Sunday event for a lot of these people -- come and see how the castle is progressing.''
He opened his home up to the curious once a month for 12 years, giving a free tour. Then his daughter told him he ought to charge admission and hold regular hours. Since then, tour groups have made regular trips to the castle and it's now featured in a wide variety of books, from Fodor's tour guides to the newly published ``Florida Curiosities.''
``The only publication I've wanted to be in and haven't got in is Architectural Digest,'' Solomon says.
Solomon, a native of Rochester, N.Y., closed galleries of his work in the Bahamas and Miami and bought 70 acres of land in Ona, about 70 miles southeast of Tampa. The idea was to retire and sculpt.
He still sculpts, working in a 2,000-square-foot studio in the woods a short walk from the castle.
His works are made entirely of recycled material -- oil drums, tin cans, car parts and just about any kind of old metal imaginable.
And Solomon is somewhat of a Henny Youngman of the art world. All his works have a one-liner to go along with them. Throughout the tour of the castle's gallery, a guide reels off jokes and puns told in a flat, dry tone. There's the sculpture of a tortoise shell with a wig dangling underneath it -- it's called ``The Tortoise and the Hair.'' There's also Jack Kevorkian's dueling pistols -- the barrels of both are bent back toward the dueler.
Pointing to half a gondola hanging lengthwise on the wall, the tour guide explains the piece is called ``Cleopatra's Gondola.'' ``She lost the other half in the divorce,'' she says, without cracking a smile. ``That's why she's in de Nile.''
The works also include Solomon's interpretations of Darth Vader, Idi Amin and a whole host of other characters.
The jokes seem to start even before the sculptures are finished. Standing in his studio, Solomon points at a five-gallon bucket of military belt buckles and says, ``Somewhere there's a regiment with its pants down.''
Solomon conducts some of the tours himself if he isn't working on the lighthouse or his next sculpture. But this attraction could be gone at any time: Solomon is ready to retire from his retirement home.
The asking price: $5 million.
``But we'll take $3.5 million,'' he said. ``What's a million between friends.''
Asked if he wants to sell his home to someone who would maintain it as a tourist attraction, Solomon shrugs. Sure, he says, ``Or to some crackpot that wants it as an unusual home.''
If you go ...
INFORMATION: Phone (863) 494-6077 or visit www.solomonscastle.com.
HOURS: Tours Daily 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Closed Mondays and the months of July, August and September.
ADMISSION: Adults, $10; Children (under 12) $4. Special rates and times available to groups.