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Friday, August 23, 2013

Strolling the Conch Republic: Architecture Key West Walking Tour

Key WestStroll the lanes of Old Town Key West, a National historic district, under the canopy of gumbo-limbo and banyan trees, past white picket fences that hold back lush gardens of orchids, banana trees, pink hibiscus and red bougainvillea, and you’ll feel like you’ve lost yourself in the 19th century.
“Key West is special because we have so many single-family homes from around the 1800s that have been stringently preserved,” says Tom Hambright, historian for Key West’s Monroe County. “Walking around Old Town brings back memories of the ways that people lived.” A mix of cultures from the Bahamas, Cuba, Europe and the eastern seaboard of the United States has resulted in a unique blend of wooden architectural styles adapted to make the best of the tropical climate. “They added large porches, high ceilings, deep roofs, scuttles to ventilate the attics and louvered shutters,” Hambright notes.
Seaworthy One block off the bustle of Duval Street, the city’s main thoroughfare, folks gather regularly on the lower veranda of the Heritage House (410 Caroline Street) for a guided tour of the 1834 home that’s now a museum. The two-story, blue-green structure evokes the ocean and is a stately example of Classical Revival Conch, also called a Bahama House. “The home was originally built by shipbuilders, who also built many of the other historic homes on the island,” says the museum’s Karen Sadof. “They built sturdy vessels and in turn sturdy homes, which have stood the test of time.” Builders even salvaged wood from ships that wrecked on the reefs. “I’ve always said that shipbuilders were definitely the original recyclers,” Sadof says.
Hidden Gems Head right onto Duval and then left on Eaton Street to the Artist House (534 Eaton Street), built in 1887. In Queen Anne tradition, the octagonal turret soars three stories high. Look up, and you can almost see the well-known Florida artist and previous owner, Gene Otto, painting by the splendid light in that room.
As you walk down Eaton, the small lots and intimate spacing of the houses give you a sense of the close-knit community. The sun glistens off the metal roofs, which became common after several fires ravaged Old Town. Stop and look closely past the palm trees that partially obscure the unusual fa├žade of the Richard Peacon House (712 Eaton Street), and you’ll see one of the two octagonal houses in Key West built in the 1890s.
Next you will find the imposing Freeman Curry House (724 Eaton Street), which was built in 1885. Although stark in its black-and-white color scheme, peek at the ceilings under the porches, which have been painted a surprising light blue. This was thought to keep wasps from making nests because the color mimicked the sky.
Weddings, Winks and Everything in Between On the right-hand corner as you cross Southard Street is the William Albury House (730 Southard Street). Despite having fallen into a bit of disrepair, architectural details, such as limestone piers that were used to anchor the home to the bedrock, are spectacular. These piers lifted homes three feet off the ground, which allowed cool air to circulate underneath the floorboards. During storms, the raging winds and high waters could also pass through easily. Walk around to the backside for an excellent example of a widow’s walk, which is a square fenced perch that provides a view over the city. The legend is that the wife would wait there for the return of her husband lost at sea.
As you make your way down the street, you’ll find the Edward Roberts House (643 William Street), where the second-floor windows look at you drowsily from under an extended eave. Built in the 1800s, this home boasts an architectural style unique to Key West; it’s called an “eyebrow” house due to the eaves that shade the upper story (and catch cool breezes). Make a right onto Windsor Lane and then another right on Elizabeth Street to find a frothy pink concoction of a house built by Benjamin Baker in 1872 (615 Elizabeth Street), often referred to as the Gingerbread House. Baker gave it to his daughter as a wedding present; the explosion of ornate Victorian-style millwork, including the balustrades, friezes and brackets, gives it the feel of a wedding cake.
Keys Handiwork Millwork, which Hambright says was added all over the island with no apparent rhyme or reason, became the rage during the latter part of the 19th century. “It was a way to make your house different from the other guy’s,” he says. Pick up a copy of The Pelican Path at the Chamber of Commerce for a self-guided tour. The 51 historical points of interest in the brochure are marked with pelican signage.

Originally published in Florida Travel + Life magazine

Related Posts: Photo Essay Exploring Key West Architecture


  1. Very nice! I've also read Travel Republic reviews about Key West, and everything I read is positive. I'm planning to book a holiday to Key West and check out the lovely houses you mentioned here. You know, I'm a stickler for interesting architecture; I'm a frustrated architect.

  2. I like to look at the San Francisco plant in the picture. It reminds me of my childhood home where there are plants surrounding our house. And I'm glad there are still places that preserve the old architecture of bygone eras.