The Carpenter-architects Of Key West


John Lowe, Jr., who built the house from a load of lumber that he brought in himself from Pensacola, was a generation younger than Captain. Roberts of the Roberts house. Lowe was born in Key West of parents who had emigrated from the Bahamas. He earned his shipmaster’s license at the age of thirteen but chose to spend his life ashore clerking in the mercantile business established by a brother-in-law, William Curry. He later went into business for himself, owning a fleet of sponge vessels and trading schooners. The house indicates he prospered.


At a casual glance Lowe’s appears to be a white wooden house very like the Roberts house and unmistakably a Key West house. But the differences are remarkable. While the Roberts house seems to have been built with portability in mind, rather like a mobile home, the John Lowe, Jr., house is grand in conception and imposing in dimension. The ceiling heights in the Roberts house suggest the tautness of shipboard space; in the Lowe house the ground-floor ceilings are twelve feet high; the living room is thirty feet long; spacious porches surround the main body of the house on three sides; and a fine staircase rises from the central hallway into which the front door opens. On the left of the main central hallway is a study, and behind it a fine classic dining room. Upstairs, at the second-floor level, a second porch runs across the front and sides of the house punctuated by the slim, square white columns that extend all the way to the roof line. The roof slants straight down from the ridge of the house to the columns at the outside edge of the second-floor balcony. “The Captain John Lowe, Jr., house is typical of mid-igth century homes built by successful mariners of Key West,” H.A.B.S. tells us. “Its design was influenced by a classic revival, island architecture and shipbuilding techniques evident in its proportions, trim and construction.”

On the top of the roof stands a broad widow’s walk from which one gets a fine view of all of the island of Key West and its harbor. The widow’s walk was originally an enclosed cupola. It blew off in a hurricane in 1919; discretion seems to have dictated its replacement by the open walk: the wind can whistle harmlessly between the balusters. Three years after the Civil War a new set of episodes started in Spain that made possible Key West’s most spectacular wave of prosperity. The original event was simply a short-lived 1868 Spanish republican uprising. Cubans expected that the new regime would permit Cuba, a colony, far more self-government than she had previously enjoyed. When this happy hope failed to materialize, some Cubans began a revolutionary movement that became a ten-year war.

There is a general sense in the world that no good will come to you if your livelihood depends on other people’s misfortunes, but this did not prove true for Key West. First it had thrived on wrecking; now it profited from the agony of Cuba’s history. In that island’s struggles Key West was beneficiary and stimulant. When Cubans and their American friends tried to assist the revolutionary forces in the Civil War of 1868-78, Key West was the principal base. When fighting broke out again in 1895 and American journalists tried to write dispatches on Cuban atrocities for a public hungry to be shocked, Key West provided the cable office through which the dispatches came. When Cubans fled their country, either temporarily while preparing what they thought would be its liberation or permanently as exiles, Key West, more than any other city, attracted them and prospered by their skills.