Miami Tourist Spots: The Coral Castle

By Robert Nickel

Have you ever wondered what Billy Idol’s song ?Sweet Sixteen? is really about? It’s not referring to a lost paramour from his past. Idol wrote the song in reference to one of Miami’s oddest tourist attractions, the Coral Castle (which is where he filmed the video). Built by an emigrant Latvian, the Castle’s background is truly bizarre.

The tale of the Coral Castle really begins with a sickly young man in Latvia named Edward Leedskalnin. While little is known about his childhood, he was born in 1887 and spent a lot of his time reading books, too sick to work; he was not wealthy, but was a passionate learner–if a bit odd. A girl named Agnes Scuffs caught his eye, and in spite of the age difference, he became engaged to the 16 year old when he was 26. However, Agnes broke off the relationship the night before the wedding, leaving Leedskalnin in complete emotional (and possibly mental) disarray. Several years later he emigrated to America, working in lumber camps around various parts of Canada, Texas, and California.

In 1919, Leedskalnin purchased land near Florida City, and he moved to the south Florida region after contracting tuberculosis. It was here where he first began to construct the Coral Castle, working in the dead of night and refusing to allow anyone to see him at work. He built the entire structure out of oolite, a form of limestone found throughout Palm Beach County and the Florida Keys. Oolite is comprised of various substances, including fossilized sea shells, and small grains of coral. Without hiring help in his endeavor, Leedskalnin made use of gigantic slabs, some upwards of 15 tons in weight; several local teenagers reported catching a glimpse of him making the blocks float, but whenever anyone asked Edward about his methods, he only replied that “it’s not difficult if you know how.”

In 1936, Leedskalnin decided to move away from Florida city, to a new spot in Homestead, near Miami; he took the entire castle with him, a project that occupied the better part of three years. He continued to work on the structure, living in part of it, and charged ten cents a head to give tours to curious visitors. For the rest of his life until his death in 1951, Leedskalnin never divulged how or why he made the Coral Castle; his only answer was “Sweet Sixteen,” presumably referring to Agnes, the 16-year-old girl who’d jilted him. He died in 1951 from advanced stomach cancer, and the Coral Castle has been a tourist attraction ever since.

The Castle is extremely impressive, considering it was the work of one man. It’s likely that Leedskalnin used ropes and pulleys to haul the gigantic monolithic stones into place. No mortar was used for their construction; their weight is cunningly used to keep everything together, and has proved strong enough to withstand a Category 5 Hurricane. The stones are connected so well that light does not penetrate through the cracks in the walls. The Castle features a sundial, a fountain, a heart-shaped table, 25 rocking chairs, and beds–all made of the oolite stone, and usually carved in one piece. The tallest stones stand twenty-five feet in height, and a perfectly level to one another.

Another famous structure is the revolving gate, which stands 8 feet tall. The door has a scant quarter-inch clearance from the walls, and was so well-balanced that a child could reportedly open it with nothing but a gentle push of a finger. When the gate broke in 1986, workers finally discovered how Leedskalnin had constructed it–nearly forty years after its construction (and luckily was repairable).

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