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Castle has the art, but the king is the artist



Published: Sun, May 27, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Items visitors will see include a horse-shaped tire swing and an elephant made of oil drums.

ONA, Fla. -- Just north of Arcadia, in a tiny community called Ona on State Route 64, is one of those eccentric, hilarious old-Florida tourist attractions that you can't help but love.

Solomon's Castle and its king, Howard Solomon, are worth the long drive into the middle of nowhere. After following miles of rutted, sandy roads through old orange groves and wide expanses of nothing, you suddenly come across a -- well, a castle. Sort of.

Solomon can't really tell visitors why he built it. & quot;It's just a hobby that got out of hand, & quot; he says with a shrug and a secretive smile. The secret Solomon knows is that if you build it, they will come. That makes Solomon happy because he loves company, and the tourist dollars aren't bad either.

Solomon set out to build the castle in the '70s when his growing family needed a home. He must not have had much money back then because he used recycled material, finding objects and frugal substitutions. Every inch of the castle is covered by shiny, used printing plates discarded by the local newspaper.

The portcullis is welded up from old iron bars. The & quot;tile & quot; floor of the entrance hall was made by stamping a plain, concrete expanse over and over again with an octagon-shaped wooden paddle dipped in red paint.

Some might think all of that couldn't possibly look good, but they'd be wrong. Solomon is an artist, and the eclectic collections of wood, metal and junk create their own kind of beauty.

Entertaining guests: Tourists not only come to see the castle, but also to visit its galleries, filled with Solomon's idiosyncratic sculptures. Made from more junk, car parts, scrap metal and recycled material, they fill room after room. If it's your lucky day, Solomon will lead the tour, telling corny jokes and groaningly bad stories with rapid-fire delivery.

& quot;See that fella? & quot; he'll ask, pointing to a swing made from old tires sliced and shaped to look like a horse. & quot;Now that's one tired horse. Named Firestone. & quot;

& quot;And this fella here? & quot;he says, pointing out a magnificent, full-size metal elephant made from cut-up oil drums, & quot;I call him Jeb the Bushman.

"Take a look at the pistols there. & quot; In a velvet display case is a pair of pistols that look sort of normal, except that their barrels are bent backward. & quot;Those are Kevorkian's dueling pistols.

& quot;Like my chair? & quot; In another gallery is a chair made of 86 beer cans. & quot;I tried to drink 150 cans of beer, to make a couch, but I got too drunk, and it's only a chair.

& quot;Notice my window over here. & quot; The deep shelf of the large bay window is filled with a display of antique cameras. & quot;That's a picture window. & quot;

Fit for a king: It isn't until arriving in the private living quarters that people really pay attention to the windows. Tourists are invited into Solomon's living room and kitchen as casually as a relative or an old friend. Tourists are free to wander around and inspect the 80 interpretive stained-glass windows that are an integral part of the castle. Solomon's windows are worthy of a church or a great hall. Each set has a theme -- the Four Seasons and the Arts were favorites.

The castle tour ends off the kitchen in a tiny six-sided foyer. & quot;I built this room to fit the chandelier, & quot; Solmon said, pointing upward.

Outside, visitors can take in a nature walk along Horse Creek, visit the pet iguanas, look for the moat's resident alligator or have lunch at the Boat in the Moat Restaurant.

It's really a boat, and it really floats in the moat. It's Solomon's version of a Spanish galleon, and he says it's the same size as the Santa Maria. The chef's salad is recommended, and Diamond Jack's Walnut Pie also looks really, really good.

When traveling in Florida, perhaps visiting that other castle, make time to visit Howard Solomon.




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