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Gnomeman'sland

Howard Solomon has spent more than three decades building a castle from scratch in the Florida swamp. Now he's ready to sell it, complete with moat, dungeon and countless elfin subjects.

By JEFF KLINKENBERG
Published February 19, 2006


Solomon's Castle, sometimes called Florida's real Magic Kingdom, rises from a swamp in the middle of Hardee County nowhere. In the castle are many gnomes. They are pointy-headed gnomes carved out of wood. A man's gnome is in his castle.

You ought to hear Howard Solomon talk about his gnomes. He goes on about them like a Borscht Belt comedian.

"I have made so many gnomes that I've learned their language. It's called gnomenclature. If you give them a feather it's a gnome de plume. If you put them on the stove it's a gnome on the range. If you put them on a piano it's a metrognome.''

What do you call a gnome on a chair?

"A suppository.''

Solomon is a little gnomish himself. He is about 5 feet 5 and weighs 120 pounds when he is wet from a soaking in the moat. He wears a sailor's cap upside down, and when it is dark as a dungeon in the bell tower his head appears a little pointy. He is somewhat wrinkled at 71. His chin hair, bristling like a shaving brush, prompts the question: Anyone seen Dr. Seuss lately?

Solomon began building in 1972. He didn't intend to build a castle, but when he realized he had bought a swamp he decided to build up instead of out. Solomon doesn't do safe, sensible things like the big-time contractors who are building condos and townhouses everywhere. He spent $19,000 on lumber, but otherwise the Rembrandt of Reclamation gathered his materials from roadside junk.

Today Solomon's Castle is a well-known B-list tourist attraction near Arcadia. It is a throwback to Florida before the Big Mouse. It belongs to the era when tourist attractions were found on roadsides, behind gas stations, even in swamps - and inevitably owned and operated by eccentrics.

It is terrible, truly terrible, to report that Solomon wants to sell his 12,000-square-foot castle. Asking price: $2.5-million, or $5.5-million with accessories.

Accessories include a 65-foot Spanish galleon, a dungeon and many, many gnomes.

The good news: Solomon admits the castle has been on the market for 15 years.

The old gnome may make his home at the castle for a long time yet.

In modern Florida, "in the sticks'' often means a block or two outside the city limits. Solomon's Castle is authentically in the sticks. From the Tampa Bay area, go south on Interstate 75 into Manatee County, exit at State Road 64 and head east 30 miles. Suburbs yield to pines and palmettoes, cows and citrus. Turn south at Florida 685, a narrow two-laner that winds 9 miles past tin-roofed barns and road-kill raccoons before reaching the Solomon swamp. Look for a little sign that says "Castle'' and hang a left.

For years Solomon Road was mud, but cars got stuck, so Solomon paved it. He put in a lot large enough to park tour buses. In a good year, more than 20,000 tourists pay $10 a head to see his castle and get a tour, often from Solomon himself, who delivers quite a spiel.

Striking a pose in the lot in front of the castle, he says, "I'm out standing in my field.''

Solomon's teachers in the New York public schools told his parents he was borderline retarded. He failed second grade but could do anything with his hands. He built cars from wood scraps and razor blades. One time he told his dad, "I invented a box without corners.'' His dad said, "It's a bowl, dummy.'' He was expelled from high school and sent to a trade school, where he was expelled again, mostly because he seemed more interested in becoming Henny Youngman than welding and hammering.

He was an unlikely soldier but served in Korea anyway. Later he followed his parents to Florida, settled in St. Petersburg with wife No. 1 and toiled as a carpenter. In 1962, Solomon moved his family to the Bahamas and began his career as an artist.

Trash was Solomon's artistic medium. A bedspring could be the spine of a crooked man. A rusting V-8 can might power a fantasy automobile.

The Da Vinci of Debris was just warming up.

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Solomon's Castle features buttresses, towers, a lighthouse, a drawbridge, a dungeon, a moat.

In 1991, Solomon built a full-sized galleon in the moat. It doubles as a restaurant and includes a poop deck, cannons and three masts. Inside are stained glass windows and a painting of a naked mermaid whose breasts are hidden behind a fishing net. "We covered her so there would be no tittering in the restaurant.''

Solomon often leads the groan-filled tours of his castle. Every room contains Solomon paintings and sculptures and toys. If Dali, Dr. Seuss and Willy Wonka were imprisoned in the same studio, they might produce Solomon's kind of art.

Every piece has a story.

One room bulges with oddball sculptures of impossible guns.

"Here is a square shooter made with a toilet valve for flushing out the perpetrators. . . . I made this one for restaurants. It fires a fork to get the waiter's attention. . . . This is the hernia gun. It weighs 70 pounds. It used to weigh 60 but we're afraid to dust it.''

A barge, sliced in half, transports a black-haired woman who wears too much eye makeup.

"Cleopatra's barge. She lost the other half in a divorce. They say that's why she was in denial.''

Solomon puns about puns.

"Know what they call 50 puns? Punishment. Too many puns and they send you to the punitentiary.''

Solomon is now married to his fourth wife.

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Solomon is an accomplished carpenter. He also is an accomplished woodworker. He knows how to lay tile, hang paper, fit pipes. He is a talented machinist. He welds, he plumbs, he wires, he sandblasts. He knows how to make stained glass. He fixes cars. He says there are 20 trades in which he could make a living if necessary. About the only thing missing from his resume is "real estate broker.''

His real estate broker is Gordon "Mac'' Martin over in Arcadia. Solomon has hired a number of brokers over the years with the same result: no contract on Solomon's Castle.

Mac Martin believes it will end differently this time.

''This is a heck of a fine castle,'' he says. ''People all over the world have heard about Solomon's Castle. I know we haven't had luck, just yet, but I know there is a person out there, somewhere, who would love to own and operate Solomon's Castle. They may not know it, but they do, and eventually they are going to find it.''

If someone drives up tomorrow with a wallet full of cash, Solomon says he will sign on the dotted line.

"Running a castle is a lot of work,'' he says.

Behind him, his daughter Alane Murphy, 44, makes a face. "I don't want Daddy to sell,'' she says. She and her husband, Dean, are in the process of building an opulent bed and breakfast a few hundred feet away. Solomon's Castle would not be Solomon's Castle without Solomon.

"It might be nice to live in the hill country of Texas,'' Solomon says. "It's a Democratic stronghold in a Republican state. There are no earthquakes there, and no hurricanes.'' He hasn't actually been to the hill country but has a friend who tells him it's nice.

In 2004, Solomon sat in his pickup truck and watched Hurricane Charley destroy his daughter's trailer and assault his castle. Everything has been repaired, but he can still hear those winds.

"Also, I have a few health issues,'' he says.

He recently was diagnosed with emphysema. He was never much of a smoker, but he fears he damaged his lungs by breathing in dust from welding and sandblasting.

"I've had two heart surgeries,'' he says. The first, in 1991, wasn't bad. The one in 2002 took something out of him.

"I have a pig valve in my heart,'' he says.

Has he noticed a difference?

"They won't let me in the synagogue anymore. And I have an urge to root in the dirt.''

-- Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at (727) 893-8727 or klink@sptimes.com.