Wednesday, December 11, 2013

A Castle of Coral

Latvieši ir visur; the title of a novel by Otto Ozols (most certainly a pseudonym, the English equivalent would be John Smith) but also a truth for Latvians living abroad – Latvians are everywhere. It seems that lately our little country is in the news more than usual, with tragedies such as the supermarket’s roof collapse in Rīga this past November that killed 54 and the Rīga Castle fire this summer, but there have also been some pretty positive mentions. There was USA Today’s Top 10 Prettiest European Cities (of which Rīga came in first), National Geographic’s Best Trips 2014, and the Pļaviņš and Šmēdiņš victory in the London Olympics has not yet been forgotten, however our latest run-in with a famous Latvian is of a more historic sort.

Inflation has had an effect on tour prices...

Edvards Liedskalniņš was born in Latvia in 1887, but left his legacy in the town of Homestead, FL, which is better known as the gateway to the Everglades National Park. He left Latvia because his sweetheart loved someone else (or so the story goes), and wandered the US, working in a wide range of fields including lumber camps and cattle drives until finally settling in Florida City. Although he started work on his coral castle there, at some point suburban encroachment (and his desire for privacy) necessitated a move 10 miles north to its present location. Transferring the carved coral pieces by tractor must have been a challenge, but the complexity adds to the mystique surrounding the Coral Castle; although there were plenty of witnesses to the convoy carrying these heavy pieces, not one person saw Edward load or unload the trailer. The same for the castle walls; there were no witnesses to how he managed to hoist each piece into place. (Coral weighs approximately 125 pounds per cubic foot, and each section of the wall weighs approximately 13,000 pounds.) Using only rudimentary, home-made hand tools, Liedskalniņš (or Leedskalnin, as he has been renamed here in the US) forged this monument, cutting and moving huge coral blocks into remarkable figures. Maybe not quite the Stonehenge or Great Pyramids, but an engineering marvel nonetheless; that one person (a 5ft, 100 pound person at that) could singlehandedly construct an entire castle is unbelievable!

We entered through the “three-ton gate”, balanced on a Model T axle and a marvel of engineering much like the rest of his designs; Lauris was able to move the gate with little assistance from his dad. Most of Ed’s tools and things were junkyard finds, repurposed to serve his needs, and we were able to take a look at quite a few of them in the “workroom,” the lower floor of the tower. Upstairs in his bedroom, more ingenuity was evident in his furniture, including the bed on a pulley that could be raised out of the way during the day.  

Mikus opens the 3 ton gate

Back outside we found evidence of Ed’s interest in astronomy. Along with the celestial carvings of the moon and several plants, there is also a giant sun dial and Polaris Telescope, which was fixed on the North Star and charted the seasons. The boys’ favorite spot was the moon fountain, largely due to the opportunity to splash around a bit.

There was plenty to see and do in the castle, including trying out various chairs, thrones and other “furniture” carved from coral. We sat at the Florida table, a replica of the state including Lake Okeechobee, then admired his “feast of love” table in the shape of a heart (which weighs 5,000 pounds). Our guide informed us that weddings, engagements and vow renewals often take place at the table, which has even been featured in Ripley’s Believe It Or Not.

Three chairs, one for morning, afternoon and evening...

The sad ending to this story is that Edward died in December of 1951 from stomach cancer at the age of 64. During the two years the castle stood vacant while under the ownership of a cousin in Michigan many of the contents including tools, wood and other components that could be moved disappeared. The castle was finally sold to a family from Chicago and eventually came to be opened to the public as a tourist attraction, and in 1984 was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. We enjoyed our visit, even more so as Liedskalniņš was Latvian and had left evidence of this in several places in the form of engraved auseklīši and other symbols. However, I recommend this quirky destination which just happens to be on the beaten path (to Everglades National Park) to everyone, as the aesthetic, engineering and celestial marvels contained within the walls of the castle are truly a lesson in imagination and resourcefulness.

The moon fountain


  1. I never knew about this castle. What a great place to visit!

  2. Glad you were able to check out the Coral Castle. It almost seems to be a Latvian-American duty to visit it at least once!

  3. Sounds very interesting. Unbelievable - really Latvians are everywhere. Edvards Liedskalniņš did very good job and was very talented. Thanks that share our people work and lives abroad.


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