The Carpenter-architects Of Key West

PrintPrintEmailEmail

In 1935 one of the most disastrous hurricanes ever to hit the Keys destroyed and undermined so much of the railroad line that no one wanted to rebuild it. For three years the island was once again cut off from dry connection with mainland Floriida; but federal funds came to the rescue, and the roadbed was converted into a two-lane highway. This road, as it turned out, did revive Key West. Carrying not the sport fishermen foreseen by Plagier, but simpler Americans made mobile with trailers and outboard motorboats, it has put the Keys—including Key West—within the range of middle-class America in an age of postwar affluence and leisure. Some of these visitors are carrying out vows to make the pleasant town their retirement home. In addition, from the start of World War 11 the naval base, down to a complement of fourteen men in 1932, stirred with new life, not so much because of its strategic location but because its warm surrounding water provided a fine testing and training ground for underwater weapons and personnel. And finally, a shrimp fleet based in Key West and fishing throughout the Gulf of Mexico now employs- on the boats and ashore—as many people as once rolled cigars and gave dimes to Martí and his junta.

The potential new boom may make or break Key West’s heritage. Perhaps, drawn to the palm-fronded patios and the honest craft of the carpenter-architects, enough wealthy Americans will buy and maintain the old buildings of Key West to save the national treasure they constitute. Perhaps, instead, these homes will fall before the great need for efficient concrete-block retirement homes on the island acreage of this small but climatically blessed island, and the creations of the old-time master workmen will simply continue to disappear, little by little, a building at a time, until as little is left of them as was of the wrecking masters, the sponge divers, and the New York journalists sitting in a vanished telegraph office and spinning tales of atrocities that helped to send two nations off to war.