prepare to be amazed!

by Megan Abbott

Recently, I came upon a YouTube clip that felt like uncovering a childhood book at the bottom of an old box. One you don’t remember at all until you see its cracked cover and then every illustration, every odd turn-of-phrase, comes rushing back.

In this case, it was documentary segment dedicated to a miraculous structure called the Coral Castle. Located about 30 miles south of Miami in Homestead, Florida, it is one of those odd buildings—Mystery Castle in Phoenix and Winchester Mystery House in San José are others—that are the result of one “ordinary” person’s eccentric quest to create something extraordinary.

Coral Castle is the improbable—impossible?—product of one man: Edward Leedskalnin, a 5-ft. tall, 100-lb. Latvian immigrant who cut, quarried, transported (ten miles), and raised the entire structure, which consists of more than 1,100 tons of coral rock, alone.

While, in that part of Florida, coral can be 4,000 feet thick, Leedskalnin reportedly used only hand-made tools, with no large machinery and no workers assisting him. Among much of the disbelieving press about the Castle—particularly during its early years—much nasty head-shaking was made not just over the fact that one man could build something like this, but that an “illiterate immigrant” could. According to the  Castle’s official website:

When questioned about how he moved the blocks of coral, Ed would only reply that he understood the laws of weight and leverage well. This man with only a fourth grade education even built an AC current generator, the remains of which are on display today. Because there are no records from witnesses his methods continue to baffle engineers and scientists, and Ed’s secrets of construction have often been compared toStonehengeand the great pyramids.

At a certain point during its long construction point, Leedskalnin opened his monument to the public, offering tours for 10 cents. Apparently, he even served up hot dogs for visiting children, the product of a pressure cooker he had invented.

The work of the Castle absorbed him from 1920 until his death in 1951.

The best part of the story, though (for me), is not the triumph of one dedicated (obsessive) man to overcome expectation, engineering, and our conceptions of what’s possible (though that’s pretty good too). It’s the reason why Mr. Leedskalnin built the castle to begin with. I bet you know why.

Like an “everyman” Charles Foster Kane building his Xanadu for his beloved. In this case a woman Leedskalnin referred to as his “Sweet Sixteen,” a young woman with the Dickensian name of Agnes Scuffs. At age 26, Leedskalnin was engaged to Miss Scuffs, ten years his junior, but, legend has it, she broke off the relationship on the eve of their wedding.

A fascinating (and to my mind, quintessentially American) figure, Leedskalnin was not just a sculptor, he was an inventor, a theorist on the properties of magnetism and a writer, the author of five “pamphlets.” Three are dedicated to “Magnetic Current” and one to “Mineral, Vegetable and Animal Life”  The fifth is called A Book in Every Home:  Containing Three Subjects: Ed’s Sweet Sixteen, Domestic and Political Views. In it, Leedskalnin writes about “Sweet Sixteen” as more than a single Agnes Scruffs but a symbol for the kind:

Now, I am going to tell you what I mean when I say, “Ed’s Sweet Sixteen.”  I don’t mean a sixteen year old girl; I mean a brand new one.

Later, he writes:

 …I want a girl the way Mother Nature puts her out.  This means before anybody has had any chance to be around her and before she begins to misrepresent herself.  I want to pick out the girl while she if guided by the instinct alone

And he expand to larger social views:

Everything we do should be for some good purpose but as everybody knows there is nothing good that can come to a girl from a fresh boy. When a girl is sixteen or seventeen years old, she is as good as she ever will be, but when a boy is sixteen years old, he is then fresher than in all his stages of development. He is then not big enough to work but he is too big to be kept in a nursery and then to allow such a fresh thing to soil a girl—it could not work on my girl. Now I will tell you about soiling. Anything that is done, if it is done with the right party it is all right, but when it is done with the wrong party, it is soiling, and concerning those fresh boys with the girls, it is wrong every time.

Indeed, Mr. Leedskalnin. Indeed.

(I do not remember any of these details of the story from when I first became fascinated by the castle—which I’ve yet to see!—at age eight or so. I’m sure, however, that, at that age, I would have taken due note.)

Mr. Leedskalnin never married. While he extended invitations to Agnes Scuffs over the years, she never did see the monument he built for her.

Postscript: I am sure there are folks out there who know much more than I do about Coral Castle (Dennis, help me!), or who have visited it. If so, tell me more!

13 Comments to “prepare to be amazed!”

  1. I’m amazed. Thanks. There must be a story in this for you, something about an obsessive, inventive young man, who, when spurned by a Sweet Sixteen decides to build a rocket-ship, which occupies him for many years, until people come by the house one day and discover young man and ship are long gone.

    Anyway, I’m off to look for Coral Castle youtube vids.

  2. I suddenly feel a need to read “Annabel Lee”!

  3. Love this, Megan! Especially love that Leedskalnin has the great little sign identifying him as “Ed L.” in the photos. Only lust for a sixteen year old girl could have generated this much crazy determination, and for some reason I always associate this with Carl Tanzler, a doctor who became obsessed with one of his dying patients and kept her body for seven years, sprucing her up with wax and plaster of paris.

    I’ve never been there, but the Coral Castle always used to turn up in the Von Daniken/Ancient Astronauts/Stonehenge stuff that I read compulsively when I was a kid, usually playing up Leedskalnin’s interest in magnetism and implying that he had discovered the secrets that had allowed the construction of all those ancient wonders that primitive folks apparently couldn’t have done without the help of magic or aliens or white people (or magical alien white people).

    I think my favorite fact about the Coral Castle is that it was used in a Doris Wishman movie. Isn’t that awesome?

  4. I had missed that!! Dennis, isn’t there an especially weird house in Bucks County–by Doylestown or something?

  5. Yeah, that’s Henry Chapman Mercer, who lived right here in Doylestown. He was another cool eccentric who built a tileworks, a museum and a mansion, all with this crazy cement construction style that he pioneered, apparently out of a fear of fire. He would build a frame for each wall, then pour cement into it. He worked with minimal plans and would build, tear down and rebuild sections improvisationally. The tiles from the tileworks are really beautiful and unique, and they still produce great stuff.

  6. After spending an hour (!!!! — thanks a lot — !!!!!) looking at all the crazy “Mysteries of…” and “In Search of…” stories, I went to my favorite de-bunker and looked at what he had to say. He can’t definitively prove how Ed built this damned silly monument, but it probably wasn’t with the help of alien spacecraft and mysterious anti-matter science known only to broken-hearted Ed.

    I’d never heard of this place. Glad to have met it.

  7. Coral Castle is one of my favorite FL attractions! I have a chapter or two in Voluntary Madness where the characters make a visit and talk about Ed and Agnes and the meaning of love, which to them is just as obsessive.

    • I thought so, Vicki! When I read VM I had forgotten all about Coral Castle but when I watched this video, it all started to flicker forth for me!! Now I have the perfect excuse to revisit VM!

  8. (Off topic, but have Sara’s new book and yours on order and can’t wait to read them.) I’m also looking forward to many more “hidden corners of culture” here on the blog. The unexplained is always so much fun!

  9. My first thought: What a neat hobby.
    My second thought: What a nutbag perv.

  10. I live about an hour from the Coral Castle, and it’s quite an impressive place. Hard to believe that Leedskalnin did it all himself. Interestingly, it’s found a place in pop culture. Singer/songwriter Andrew Peteron penned a piece about it, as did Billy Idol.

  11. It was the setting of a cheesy soft-core s-f movie whose title escapes me.

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