What Edward Leedskalnin joined together in memory of his lost bride, Hurricane Andrew could not put asunder.
Leedskalnin's 1,100-ton Coral Castle, down to its nine-ton swinging gate and its rocking chairs of rock, still stands, with little more than gashes here and there from flying debris and trees downed by the storm's 175 mph winds."Probably the safest place you could have been in the storm was right here," said Tom Lowe, caretaker at the strange tourist attraction whose operators call it America's Stonehenge.
The castle - built mostly of nine-ton blocks of coral rock, with walls a few feet thick - is a monument to lost love and construction engineering.
As the story goes, Leedskalnin, who lived near Riga, Latvia, was engaged at age 26 in 1912. On the night before the wedding, his 16-year-old bride-to-be called it off.
The heartbroken Leedskalnin traveled through Europe, Canada and Washington state, studying astronomy and Egyptian history along the way. In 1918 he moved to Dade County, drawn to the warm climate because of respiratory problems.
He began carving coral rock into a monument that, according to legend, he hoped would bring his sweetheart back to him. He labored mostly at night, refusing to let anyone watch him work with his chisel, winches and block and tackle as he completed a castle with moat.
Asked how he was able to move the massive blocks of rock, the 5-foot, 100-pound architect would say he understood the secrets of the Great Pyramids.
He lived in the castle's two-story tower until his death in 1951, propounding strange theories about magnetism and cosmic forces.
The castle's rock features include a table shaped like the state of Florida, with Lake Okeechobee as a finger bowl; a baby cradle; a rocker; a well; a heart-shape "love table"; a 25-foot "telescope," or rock shaft that is trained on the North Star and focuses sunlight on a giant sundial; a 28-ton obelisk; a 23-ton crescent moon; and 18-ton replicas of Saturn and Mars.
After Hurricane Andrew, members of an Army engineering battalion from Fort Bragg, N.C., set up a command post in the tourist center, where rubber alligators are usually sold, and found themselves marveling at the work.
"We're engineers, and I have a hard time imagining how this guy did this," Richard Olson said.
"It's unreal," said Mike Singleton. "If we could learn a little bit of what he knew, we'd be OK."
The place began as Rock Gate Park, charging 10 cents to anyone who rang a bell and waited for Leedskalnin to appear for an escorted visit. It is now owned by a Chicago family and averages more than 50,000 tourists a year at $7.75 each for adults and $4.50 for children.
Manager Clell Villella said the castle should be ready to receive visitors again next month. The hurricane blew down much of the foliage at the castle, and the courtyard was strewn with debris from neighboring buildings.