The Carpenter-architects Of Key West

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The booming conditions produced by all these events caused a tremendous demand for new housing. The third major period of Key West carpenter architecture began in the seventies and was now supplemented by the construction of several important public buildings, including a convent and a handsome brick post office. The latter, built in the nineties, was later acquired by the Navy and is still used as part of the naval base. Over the years the Navy, while maintaining the building meticulously, has managed to add a few false and discordant accents, closing in open porches, tinkering with the roof line, and inserting jangly aluminum sashes in the Richardsonlike window openings. The building remains a vigorous and strong example of its style and has been recorded in detail by H.A.B.S.

The eighties and nineties were the period in Key West in which the Gothic Revival went south. The buildings erected then, though they retained many of the same qualities of basic simplicity and clean line that distinguished their predecessors, added so much ornamentation in the way of fretted wood balustrades, corner brackets at the porch column heads, and even stand-up wooden icing along the roof ridges, that many visitors to Key West form the instant impression that the lacework is the essential, intrinsic feature of Key West architecture.

The Historical American Buildings Survey has noted some thirty different patterns of balustrades used in Key West at the height of the Gothic Revival. These range from fairly simple elementary cutouts in which two adjacent diamonds meet at their broadest point while at the rail line and the foot of the banister the apexes flourish in a scalloped semiround, to far more elaborate designs with heart-shaped cutouts, and others too involved even to attempt to describe. These designs, according to local legend, were developed to their romantic high point by a Cuban Negro craftsman named Francisco Camello, who operated a wood-carving plant in Key West in the eighties. Nowadays if one is faced with replacing any of the balustrades, he can consult Howard Englund, a civilian architect attached to the public works department of the naval base. Englund has made templates of each of the designs, and local millwork establishments can reproduce the designs from his templates. None of this helps with the really elaborate ornamentation, however. Some of these include lathe-turned wooden spokes inserted in wooden arcs or crossed with each other in the kind of complex intertwining that suggests filigree jewelry. These designs are often used in conjunction with turned wooden columns, which are standard in a number of Gothic adaptations of the basic Key West style.

In the 1930’s, when the whole Victorian epoch was reviled generally by the makers of taste in America, the structures of Key West’s third period were rather contemptuously regarded. A writer for the WPA, in an unsigned unpublished manuscript at the P. K. Yonge Library of Florida History of the University of Florida, refers to the “varied yet fussy and monotonous decorative elements” of the Gothic Revival, but even the nameless critic admitted a feeling for the interior wood curtains and the ceiling murals that are sometimes found in the more extravagant examples. Today, as the functional criteria of architectural beauty that seemed so important in the thirties are close to realization, the ornamentation of the Victorian period has come back into style, a welcome relief from bad Bauhaus; and many find appeal in the exuberance, confidence, and even the extravagance and perhaps the unsophistication that marked Key West’s third architectural period.

But long before mid-twentieth-century critics appraised Key West’s “Gothic period,” the prosperity that had produced it stopped. The cigar business moved to Tampa, perhaps because of labor difficulties compounded by the political complications of the Cuban-Spanish rivalry; perhaps simply because rail and road transportation was better from Tampa. When this industry left, it was, unlike salvaging, replaced by nothing. When the Spanish-American War ended and the Panama Canal was built, Guantánamo Bay on the south coast of Cuba, not Key West, became the Gibraltar of the Caribbean. The naval base dwindled instead of growing. In 1912 a new day seemed possible when the wildest of all Floridian schemes, the construction of the Florida East Coast Railway—120 miles over the Keys from Florida City to Key West—was completed, but it had no economic significance whatsoever. Its owner, Henry M. Flagler, made some pretense of believing the railroad would thrive by carrying sport fishermen to Key West and bringing back goods, but fundamentally the line was his toy, built by a personal investment of fifty million dollars in the spirit of an Oriental prince constructing the Taj Mahal. It did nothing to check Key West’s decline.