Bruce Woods wanted a castle.
“I saw a book on castles at the library and found Lohort, which is a small castle,” explained Woods. “I said, ‘Hey, I can build that.’”
And so he has, laboring for 30 years in the woods of western Wellington to construct a building inspired by the turreted gatehouse of Lohort Castle, constructed in County Cork, Ireland in 1184. Its owner went on to become King John of England. Later, Oliver Cromwell’s cannons smashed it and the IRA burned it in 1922.
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But it spoke to Woods.
“I know I’m an unusual, strange, strange person,” Woods says, entirely unnecessarily.
According to his wife, Mary, a Delray Medical Center nurse, “Bruce definitely walks to a different drummer, but he’s a Renaissance man who can do anything.”
Later this year, Woods expects to finally finish his replica of an 833-year-old castle, perched on its man-made hill among Wellington’s equestrian gentry.
Sometimes, the fine line between creativity and insanity comes down to persistence and a dream, even through the hardest of hard times.
Seen through the dirt road’s fog of summer dust, it could be a mirage shimmering in the heat.
But there’s actually a castle across the moat — OK, pond — a gray and brooding fortress among the Florida pines, with twin crenellated towers and a huge barricaded front door straight out of a Robin Hood movie.
Perched on a hill, it towers over the pines in the rural Rustic Ranches neighborhood.
Woods puts three of his four guard dogs in the garage and turns off the electric entry fence before showing off the project that has consumed his nights and weekends for three decades.
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His red hair is bleached blonde by years in the sun working various construction jobs. His baggy Wrangler jeans look like they might desert his skinny hips at any moment.
Lighting a cigarette, he laughs, saying, “My wife thinks I’m quitting. But I’m down to a pack every three or four days.”
In 1986, Woods was newly clean and sober after five years of living on the streets of Fort Lauderdale. He’d come south after a brutal childhood in Ohio and a teenage brush with the law.
After scraping together $35,000 to buy five acres of drained Brazilian pepper-infested swamp in unincorporated Palm Beach County, he set up a tent and got to work.
“I started clearing it with a machete, a shovel and a lawnmower,” he said.
Unsurprisingly, he was single at the time.
Woods isn’t related to nobility. He doesn’t even have one of the store bought titles of which socialites are fond. Lord and Lady Grantham would never have invited him to tea.
But in his literal vision of the American dream, a man’s home could be an igloo, a ranch, a yurt… or an Irish castle.
“I’ve been told ‘you’re nuts’ lots of times,” he says. “But this castle is a labor of love.”
When it comes to dream fulfillment, Woods is a guy with follow-up. He hired an architect to draw plans for a 4-bedroom, 4,500 square-foot castle, then plunged into deliberations with the county’s building department.
Years later, Wellington annexed Rustic Ranches, including the Woods’ property which backs up to the Wellington Environmental Preserve at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Everglades Habitat.
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Woods gestures to a large pond, ringed with lily pads.
“I hired guys to dredge a pond to get the fill. We found 15 feet of coral rock they had to dig through. It took about 180,000 yards of dirt and rock to raise this 10 feet, so I could build on a hill.”
That was around the time he upgraded to living in a trailer.
He leads the way to the front of the castle’s towers, which flank the eight foot wide front door. What look like small boulders partially cover the walls.
“This is what’s taking so long,” he says.
The “stones” are actually blocks of stucco he devised from a mixture of three different kinds of concrete. After applying it one-and-a-half inches thick to the exterior walls, he painstakingly carves the mixture into individual stone-like shapes as it dries.
The stucco looks so real there’s a neighborhood rumor that Woods is facing his castle with imported Irish stone.
Woods stopped construction the summer of 2000, when a car accident sent him through the windshield and into a hospital with a traumatic brain injury. His castle was abandoned for more than five months.
“I had to learn to live again,” he said.
He credits Mary with teaching him how.
They had known each other before his accident, but were involved with other people. This time was different.
“Mary picked me up and ran away with my heart,” says Bruce.
But, there was one problem.
At the time, Bruce was living in his garage, whose roof line echoes the castle’s teeth-like battlements. The castle itself was still a shell without electricity or running water.
Mary loved the castle, but she wasn’t taking cold outdoor showers.
She gave him a deadline.
“He had to have both electric and water installed in 30 days,” she says, grinning. “He did it in 31.”
They’d been married four months to the night she nearly died.
He was driving to meet her when he saw an accident ahead. He watched the Traumahawk helicopter land and take off again. He didn’t know Mary was inside. She had broken her pelvis, both hips, both legs, all her ribs, a shoulder, elbow and one arm.
“They gave me a 5 percent chance of survival,” says Mary, 62. “But God wasn’t ready for me and the devil was afraid I’d take over.”
After three months in Delray Medical Center — the same hospital where she worked as a trauma nurse and where Bruce had been a patient — and 34 surgeries, Mary went home.
When she reached the $1 million lifetime limit on her insurance, she had to devise her own physical therapy. Part of it was walking up and down the small hills Bruce had created on their property.
She was back to work 10-and-a-half months after the crash.
Slight and tan with a long dark braid, and no discernible limp, she sits in front of the massive, baronial fireplace Bruce built in their living room near the 4-inch-thick curving cedar doors he made for the tower rooms.
The wide front door latches with a thick sliding board, the kind of thing movie invaders are always trying to break.
They were offered three quarters of a million dollars for the castle during the real estate boom, Mary says, but turned it down, gambling they could get more once construction was completed.
When the recession hit and Bruce was out of work for two-and-a-half years, they tried to sell for what they had invested, about $500,000, but found no buyers.
Construction had taken so long, the castle needed a new roof before it was finished.
Mary is ready to relinquish her reign.
“I love the property, love the solitude,” says Mary, “but I can’t clean a castle. It’s too big. I always say, it’s a man’s dream and a woman’s nightmare.”
She’s also tired of the people walking up their driveway, thinking they’re visiting a tourist attraction. It’s why they put up an electric fence.
She’ll be ready to move by the time she retires in three years. Maybe to Siesta Key.
Bruce isn’t sure. The castle has been his dream for so long.
But he wants to make Mary happy.
Maybe that’s his new dream; his new labor of love.