Famous for its beaches, nightlife, esoteric diversified neighborhoods, drug scene, the fast life in slow lanes, the fun in the sun and all things extremes, Miami also has a wee bit of history, sometimes hidden in layers of sunscreen and sunburns, but nevertheless there.
Take the Coral Castle for example: hard to get any weirder than the story of this man building a castle. It goes like this -- Edward Leedskalnin, born in 1887 in the Republic of Latvia (a Baltic country formerly part of the Russian Empire, and then the Soviet Union) came to the United States with a broken heart, his teenage fiancée having left him the very eve of their planned wedding, in a sudden change of mind.
Grieving Edward quickly immigrated to America, the land of opportunity and dreams for a lad raised in a cold and harsh country, and took odd lumber jobs in Canada, California and Texas. In 1919, when he was hit by tuberculosis, Edward's doctor suggested he move to a warm and humid climate. Edward headed to Florida, where he purchased a piece of land in Florida City, the southern part of what is now known as Miami-Dade County.
This is where the heart-broken man decided to build what he called Rock Gate Park, a monument to his grief, a witness to his sad love experience. It was to be his own Taj Mahal, which was built in India in 1631 by a grief-stricken emperor who lost his third wife during the birth of their 14th child. Meant to stand as a love testament to a runaway bride, but with a charge of 10 cents for tours, the Miami landmark provided a lifelong income for Edward.
The coral stone edifice took 20 years to finish because Edward worked alone, mostly in the secrecy of the night, quarrying and sculpting over 1,000 tons of stones, using his own homemade tools of timber and metal. The "park" includes the house where he lived all his life, and various stone sculptures laying in the garden. An obelisk, a labyrinth and stones rendering of the Moon, Mars and Saturn are replicated in elaborate and precise astronomical pieces. A 9-ton stone gate moves with the slight touch of a finger, and today, this is still like a magic trick.
The massive long-term effort was the true monument to his lost love, the wife he never had and the heart he left in Russia. When asked how he was able to achieve his masterpiece by himself, with very little tools and no outside help, Edward had only one answer:
"I understand the laws of weight and leverage and I know the secrets of the people who built the pyramids at Giza."
Being a short (5 foot tall) and sickly man of just 100 pounds, how did Edward manage to move over 3 million pounds of dense coral blocks, interlocked the stones with minute precision and build a strong and durable castle without the use of mortar? In 1945, the reclusive Edward published a cryptic pamphlet explaining how he used the laws of magnetism and electricity to achieve his Coral Castle.
For a man with only a fourth-grade education and no formal training in any applied science, or architecture experience, the mystery of how he could have possibly built that thing remains to this day. Magnetism and levitation were hinted as explanations for the eery achievement. One speculation of the impossible feat was that he knew how to use electromagnetism to eliminate or reduce the gravitational pull of the earth, rendering the lifting and moving of the stones feasible.
The entire building was moved from Florida City to Homestead in the mid-1930s, when Edward hired a truck and a driver to move it to its present location on a 10-acre site. One day Edward hung a sign on the castle to tell visitors he was ill and unavailable for tours, then boarded a city bus and rode to Miami's Jackson Hospital, where he died a few days later, in 1951, at the age of 64. The only clue he left behind was on the headboard of his bed, and it read:
The secret to the Universe is 7129 / 6105195.
Maybe one day, when we definitely discover how the Egyptians build their pyramids, we will also found out how Edward built his love castle -- or vice versa.
INFO: Coral Castle Museum, 28655 S. Dixie Highway, Miami.
305-248-6345; coralcastle.com. General admission $15. Open everyday.