The Carpenter-architects Of Key West

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In Key West in 1969 more than three hundred houses were still standing that were built in wood before the year 1900; at least one is more than 140 years old. The three hundred houses are concentrated on approximately twenty blocks of the city, immediately surrounding and including its main business street, Duval Street. After the visitor has got used to this sudden plethora of buildings like none he has seen before ("Some of these quaint and charming houses are to be found in no other area in the country,” said Robert Garvey, a former executive director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation), he finds that as many as a hundred buildings are distinctive. Of these, twenty-one are included in Pelican Path , a guide to Old Key West prepared by the Old Island Restoration Foundation. Five have been meticulously studied by the u.s. government, their dimensions, elevations, plans, and details set down in drawings and notes by the Historical American Buildings Survey of the Department of the Interior. At least twelve others have been noted in the H. A. B. s. records and might have been measured in detail if their owners had not objected to the nuisance and loss of privacy involved in the procedure.

Of the wooden buildings of Key West a few have been saved from demolition by the timely arrival of someone with money and a desire to save the building for its public importance. Captain Geiger’s house, in which John James Audubon stayed for several weeks while sketching the birds of the Keys during the 1830’s, was saved by Mr. and Mrs. Mitchell Wolfson and turned into a small museum when it was on the brink of disappearance to make way for a filling station. Others have been put to similar adaptive uses as doctors’ offices, beauty salons, curiosity shops. But the overwhelming majority of the buildings are still homes for somebody or other. They have not been refurbished en bloc to an agreed-upon standard by wealthy new arrivals or resuscitated by a philanthropic millionaire into a threedimensional museum, however valuable, in which all animation remains suspended. In Key West one walks past faded house and shiny house, from white house to pink house, from authentic renovation to authentic dilapidation, hearing on Sunday mornings husbands quarrelling with their wives behind the modern jalousies, and observing that while one owner has permitted his saber-sawed gingerbread balustrades to fade and rot untouched, his neighbor, in a misguided fit of neatness, has replaced the original white wooden picket fence with a concrete-block wall washed over with cement grout into which (for ornamentation, one supposes) an occasional terra-cotta tile has been stuck like a square currant in a crust of unbaked dough.

Key West’s wooden houses reflect three different periods into which the city’s history may conveniently be divided. The Captain Richard Roberts house, one of the two known to have been brought over from the Bahamas by its owner, dates from the earliest period. It was re-erected in Key West in 1847, on’y twentysix years after the Senate ratified the purchase of the Territory of Florida from Spain. The change in sovereignty did not extinguish private titles. An Alabama citizen named Simonton purchased the uninhabited island of Key West from its Spanish owner in 1821 for two thousand dollars and promptly sold off threequarters of his purchase to others. Within a few months settlers began to arrive; the most permanent was the United States Navy, which, after hearing the report of a survey party, established a naval station under the command of Commodore David Porter, remembered for sturdy service in controlling piracy in Caribbean waters. The Navy has had a permanent installation at Key West ever since, but its size and importance have changed over the years, with corresponding effect on the economic health of the civilian city.

The civilian settlers who began to arrive at Key West were also interested in the location of the island with respect to shipping in the Caribbean area. Their interest was not strategic, however. More menacing to the Caribbean trade than Porter’s naval guns were the persistent east winds of the south Florida coast and the long, treacherous, and unmarked Florida Strait. The earliest Key West settlers were seafaring men from New England and elsewhere who saw the financial possibilities in salvage. Sometimes they themselves had been shipwrecked on the Florida reef and salvaged by a Key West wrecker. The rule of the sea awards the first captain at the scene of a wreck the special status of wrecking master: he is entitled to a special share of the fee payable for saving the vessel or its cargo, or both. From the tops of houses in Key West the wreckers could keep an eye on a long section of the reef, dashing down to their salvage sloops at a sign that someone was in trouble, in much the same way that a modern automobile wrecker keeps his short-wave radio tuned to police frequencies in the hope of hearing about new business. Other captains cruised the reef in search of someone needing help.