- Historic Sites
The Carpenter-architects Of Key West
February 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 2
Key West, southernmost city in the mainland United States proper, was also in 1880 the largest and most prosperous city in Florida; by 1930, in dizzying contrast, it had become one of the most depressed areas in the United States. It has suffered not only from recurrent overexpectations—perhaps a national affliction—but from recurrent disasters, both human and natural. The wavy ups and downs of Key West’s spirits have left their traces on the sand and coral of the small island on which the city stands. On the upswings of its hopes the city produced what few American cities achieve: a distinctive style of architecture. The downswings of its disappointments have permitted its architectural achievement to remain undisturbed; faded, perhaps, but still there. As a result modern Key West is the somewhat startled custodian of a small but priceless architectural treasure.
The city, buoyed now by the surging national demand for fresh shrimp and vacations-cum-outboard-motors, rides the swell of renewed commercial expectations. If these are sounder than their predecessors, prosperity will raise local land values. This trend may well make the sites where the old buildings stand too valuable for the buildings themselves; someone will covet the land as the perfect place for garden apartments or office buildings. The architectural treasure may be in danger. Already there are portents to remind the visitor of similar events in other cities: sudden disappearances of fine buildings, some touches of tarnish where a present owner hopes to sell and believes his site is more attractive than the condition of his house, and, too often, a canny but tasteless substitution on some buildings of architectural rhinestones for architectural diamonds.
Key West’s treasure reflects its peculiarly American heritage. Its notable buildings are not public structures, like churches and government buildings, signed with the unmistakable mannerism of an individual architect. The city is notable for domestic structures—the nonpalatial homes of the affluent and near-affluent that are ignored in European architectural history but on which many American architects, like Henry H. Richardson, Stanford White, Frank Lloyd Wright, or Philip Johnson, made their original reputations. Key West’s domestic buildings are essentially American in still another sense: no professional architect designed them—no one, in fact, designed them at all. They are a spectacular result of carpenter architecture, made by men without formal training who had studied no abstract tables of the strength of the materials and who probably solved the details of design as they built. Their design tables were in their thumbs; their schooling consisted of memories of other buildings, seen in other places, that had accomplished what the carpenters needed. Because they worked in Key West, the carpenter-architects brought with them memories of a number of vessels and seaport homes from their own past. They borrowed what they wanted: widow’s walks from New England; roof scuttles for ventilation from ships themselves; long, overhanging eaves and gutters connected to underground cisterns from the West Indies. From these, and from the echoes of fashion that made their way to Key West with its new arrivals over 150 years of history, they derived from time to time a suggestion of contemporary styles: Greek Revival columns and Federal fanlights; later, from the Gothic Revival, gables and window bays; from Creole New Orleans, wrought-iron trellises and balustrades, reproducing these, with tropical fecundity of imagination, in wood.