The Carpenter-architects Of Key West

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Key West was a wrecker’s paradise. The climate was equable, and there were plenty of potential customers. Thirty American vessels cleared Havana each week; twenty more cleared the smaller port of Matanzas on the north coast of Cuba. To go home with their cargoes of sugar and rum they had to sail past Key West, only eighty miles from Havana, and keep to the strait between the Florida reef and the Bahamas. If only a fraction of these ships were wrecked on the reef and only a small portion of the value of the cargo paid to the wreckers for salvage, there was still a handsome sum of money to be divided among the wreckers of Key West. Business in the city expanded.

Once a disabled ship had been pulled off a reef or its cargo unloaded —often at great risk—outside assistance was necessary to decide on the value and necessity of the wreckers’ services. Before Florida’s status was settled by international treaty with Great Britain, the salvaged cargo and the salvaged vessels were taken to the Bahamas for adjudication of a proper fee, and usually for auction of the goods saved in order to raise the amount. Simonton, no doubt still interested in the prosperity of his investment in Key West real estate, wrote to the House of Representatives in 1828 pointing out that the govern- ment was losing the revenue from court fees and duty on the goods sold by permitting vessels wrecked in American territorial waters to be taken elsewhere for the adjudication of salvage. In response the Congress passed a law requiring that all vessels wrecked in American waters be brought to the nearest American port, and to take care of wrecks in the Florida Strait the government established a court at Key West.

An immediate result of the new law was a drop in the wrecking business in the Bahamas, whereupon a number of outstanding Bahamian wrecking captains moved to Key West and became American residents and ultimately American citizens. Captain Richard Roberts was one such. He came over in 1847, bringing his disassembled house with him, probably because the hurricane of 1846 had destroyed many of Key West’s homes and it was then difficult to find builders and materials for new ones.

The Roberts house, which is still standing and in use, is a splendid example of simple conch architecture, designed to provide sturdy protection against hurricanes and having long, shady porches. To conserve interior space the stairs to the second floor are on the outside of the house; the stairs to the third floor are more like a companionway in a ship than a flight inside a house. The landing at the top of this nearly vertical flight is so narrow it suggests a crow’s nest; one must maneuver around the banisters sideways to get to the two rooms on the top floor, one at each side of the stairs. The rooms are ventilated by hatches cut into the roof.

“Significant architectural features,” says the Historical American Buildings Survey in discussing the Roberts house, “include porches along the long dimensions of the house at both floor levels, exterior stairway, wide beaded-edge siding and mortise and tenon joinery.” The present resident of the house, who has survived three Key West hurricanes, describes the house as “riding with the storms.” The interior walls and ceilings are made of boards as wide as eighteen inches; there is no plaster in the house.

Captain Roberts, according to local historians, was a southern sympathizer during the Civil War, as were many other Key Westers, including particularly those who arrived from the Bahamas after the abolition of slavery there. Since Key West remained firmly in Union hands throughout the entire war, the captain moved up the west coast of Florida and operated a blockaderunner. He returned to Key West after the war and, having married three times, produced enough Roberts offspring to confuse local genealogists and cataloguers of Key West houses. His youngest daughter by his third wife continued to live in the Roberts house until 1964.

The wrecking business that was supposed to provide Key West with perpetual prosperity flourished until the Civil War, reaching a high point of 2.8 million dollars in 1855.

But gradually it began to taper off. Lighthouses were built to mark the Florida reef (over the opposition of Key Westers, some said), and marine safety’s gain became the salvage business’ loss. But the final blow was the development of steam navigation. Having broken their dependence on the wind, shipmasters made the passage through the Florida Strait with so few accidents that the wrecking fleet could no longer depend on salvage fees to stay alive.

The incipient depression that resulted was cured by several new industries—sponge fishing (until it was killed by a sponge blight), shipping and ship chandlery generally, and, most important, a number of activities that flourished on a political if not a coral reef: Cuban unrest. Success in these circumstances required somewhat more sophistication than the rough-and-ready atmosphere of the wrecking days. The John Lowe, Jr., house, recorded in detail by the Historical American Buildings Survey in 1967, is typical of this second period.