The Carpenter-architects Of Key West


Wood, of course, constitutes the essential material of the carpenterarchitect. This tends to degrade his achievement. Many Europeans cannot overcome their sense that living in a wooden house stigmatizes one as asocial and cultural inferior. If taste were more logical, stone and brick houses in Europe might constitute a badge of shame; dwellings there were built in these materials largely because the native hardwood forests had been felled to satisfy other needs: fuel and ships, for example. In forested America, on the other hand, builders were free to use wood generously. Wood was available on Key West, even though little structural-sized timber grows locally. Some came to the city from the salvage of wrecks, the city’s first major doomed industry. Some of these wrecks had been carrying structural-grade lumber from Pensacola and its nearby forests. The cargoes were usually auctioned off in Key West, in part to pay the salvage bill. Lumber was also deliberately imported by Key Westers with the money they made in other transactions—mahogany from Honduras; cypress from the upper Keys, nearer the Florida mainland; pine from the Gulf Coast ports like Pensacola, Mobile, and Pascagoula. Some came in the form of dismantled houses, at least two of which were carried complete but knocked down by their owners, who migrated to Key West from the Bahamas in the i840’s.


Metal nails were in short supply in Key West, however; most of the older houses were assembled mainly without them; mortise and tenon joints held the structural members together. The assembly worked out very well despite the extreme stresses that frequent hurricanes have put on the buildings of Key West. The wooden houses are generally erected on Florida cypress posts, which are sunk into heavy coral or limestone footings. The sills of the houses are pegged to upper ends of the posts. This type of construction is especially hurricane-proof, according to a group of native Key Westers descended from white immigrants from the Bahamas, who call themselves Conchs (rhymes with “tonks,” as in “honkytonks"). They explain that the treenailed houses bend in a heavy blow, offering less than rigid resistance to high winds. Whether or not this adequately explains the high survival rate (and the oldest house on the island has withstood every hurricane since 1825), it is a fact that the older homes are built without plaster, which might well crack when the structural frame shifts position. Wooden interior walls, sometimes ornamented with chair rails or base boards, typify the best old houses.

Social considerations aside, wood is a great building material. It is light in proportion to its strength. Unlike concrete, long, unsupported pieces of it will not easily break apart. Any good carpenter who has worked with it can safely judge how thick a piece of lumber should be used for any purpose, even one he has never tried before. He can decide to run his columns up two stories instead of one and pick the dimensions he will then need, without having been trained in the engineering sciences. He does not even have to buy a design manual. Wood is so easy to shape and so simple to connect, unlike steel, that a carpenter-architect with no training beyond his journeyman’s experience can relatively easily develop new forms for arches, doorways, rail posts, balustrades. A result of this is a pleasing variety among wooden houses.