Sweet Sixteen

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In southern Florida, David Whitley discovers the oddball home of a jilted man who built a castle in honour of the girl that dumped him


If someone ditched you the day before your wedding, you could be forgiven if you were consumed with hatred and bitterness for the rest of your days. Edward Leedskalnin was not that sort of man. In fact, he probably went a bit too far the other way. Ed’s story of rejection, unrequited love and downright stalkiness starts back in his home country of Latvia.


He was engaged to a 16-year-old called Agnes, who was ten years his junior. She had second thoughts on the eve of the big day and broke it off. Heartbroken, Leedskalnin fled to the United States where he could have started a new life for himself, met someone new and embraced the land of opportunity. Instead he spent 20 years building a castle out of coral rock as some kind of warped tribute to the girl who thought he was a slightly creepy old man. And if that wouldn’t disabuse of her erroneous opinion, nothing would. Ed’s Coral Castle can be found in Homestead, a nothingy sort of town that hangs like a pimple on the gigantic, sprawling bottom that is Miami.


Head south and you’re pretty much into the swampy green Everglade wilderness that forms the tip of the state before US1 takes you into the Florida Keys. On approach, it looks like something of a ruin. Ed built the place between 1920 and 1940 and since then it has not quite had the loving upkeep to match the devotion put into building it. But it is still a remarkable place. The most remarkable thing about it, of course, is that Ed built it all on his own. He didn’t have teams of labourers hacking away at the rocks or hauling them into position. In fact, he did most of his work at night by lantern light and there are no witnesses who have come forward to say they ever saw Ed working on the castle.


Essentially, he managed to build the eight foot tall and three foot thick walls – plus everything inside – without anyone ever clocking him in action. Inside it doesn’t particularly look like the work of a master architect, but when you start looking closely, there’s incredible detail. His hand-made sundial is still accurate to within one or two minutes. He’s also created a table in the shape and proportion of Florida and a children’s play area based on the story of Goldilocks and the three bears. There’s a throne room too, with thrones created for Ed, his ‘Sweet Sixteen’ and a child that he was clearly never going to have if he stalked young women by building homemade castles. Next to them is a massively uncomfortable rock seat which was created for his future mother-in-law. Unlike other items of furniture in the castle which were just a bit lacking in home-furnishing nous, this one was made deliberately awkward to sit on. All of this was done from basic tools, most of which he made himself.


Quite whether young Agnes would have appreciated his efforts is another matter. His living quarters are a grim sight. There was no electricity or running water, food was always cooked on a home-made outdoor barbecue and the furniture his bedroom was made from scrap metal. Not the greatest wooing joint, Ed. He was apparently a very private man. A sign outside the front gate asked people to ring a bell twice. Anyone who rang once or more than twice, he ignored, but if he wasn’t busy he’d show people who followed the instructions around for 25 cents. The story behind the Coral Castle is far more interesting than the building itself – it’s a roadside curiosity that makes you ask “Why?” But the more important question is “How?”


The crescent moon and planet carvings sat on top of the walls are huge and the giant obelisk is bigger than the great upright at Stonehenge. And it begs similar questions to those of Stonehenge. Edward Leedskalnin was a scrawny 5ft tall chap with no outside assistance. How on earth did he get these massive stone carvings up there? If asked he would only ever reply that he understood the laws of weight and leverage. Odd chap