The Key West Mystique

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Key West architecture | Can we afford to preserve history?

By Linda Grist Cunningham, editor and proprietor

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.


Key West’s looking pretty spiffy these days. Especially its residential neighborhoods with their ubiquitous Key West architecture. From Old Town to the far reaches of New Town, there’s new paint, spruced-up fences, cleaned-up front yards and enough semi-manicured landscaping for a tropical vibe but not enough to need a machete.

A walk or bike ride around town proves my point. Hardly a block goes by without a contractor’s sign hanging from the front gate or second floor balcony. There are hammers (well, those pressure nail guns, to be exact), cussing and bickering among the trades and an unending stream of white panel vans and trucks hanging rights and lefts out of Strunk’s and Manley deBoer’s.

It’s been that way on my block for more than 10 years. Since 2012, neighbors have raised two, new “stick built” houses, renovated five from inside out and spruced up another three. I’ve lost track of how many nails I’ve picked up before they ate my tires, or how many times I cleaned house because of construction dust. Right now, as I sit here on the front porch, there’s not a hammer or swear word to be heard, but I’m betting that’s not going to last. There are two houses ripe for re-dos. We did our renovation in 2013.

Key West architecture
This was the start of our 2013 renovation.
Key West architecture
And, here we are today.

If I had to pick a date when all this spiffing and sprucing took hold, I’d go with Hurricane Wilma in October, 2005. Wilma’s storm surge flooded homes and destroyed landscaping and we got a taste of how nice it is to have a new refrigerator or bathroom shower.

Then came the 2008 real estate crash, which sunk prices so (relatively) low that we got a ton of new home buyers who chucked mainland corporate life and made Key West their permanent address. And they ramped up the demand for renovations and landscaping.

Add in Hurricane Irma in September, 2017, which cleaned out a dozen years of underbrush and dead tree limbs, and the all-cash, as-is frenzy of 2021-22 home sales, and Key West’s had a booming confluence of build-buy-fix-make-it-pretty. Southard and Fleming have long been poster-worthy walking tours. These days (if one could just erase the parked cars), the homes along those streets can stop you in your tracks.

We ought not, I guess, forget the three Covid years. A thousand DIY to-do lists were checked off, right down to cleaning out the junk drawers.

Preserving Key West architecture

So, yeah, we’re looking good. I think it’s a good thing, though I wonder if we’re not just a hair too close to Disney World’s Key West. You know? All clean. No funk. But, you know as well as I do that every Key West house has “that” smell. The earthy, sea creature, kinda mildewy one that seeps up from the ground and into the very walls. You can air-condition, dehumidify and clean things forever, but it’s always there, even if just a whiff. I like that; keeps us honest.

The city and the Historic Architectural Review Commission have done yeoman’s work to preserve the look and feel of old Key West. The commitment to historic preservation is particularly evident in my Meadows neighborhood, which is east of White and north of Truman.

We are a patchwork of eclectic architectural styles, some as old as a century, some built last year. We’re Conch cottage and Conch cottage knockoffs. We’re eyebrows and mid-century modern. There’s more mid-century modern in the Casa Marina District and touches of Art Deco in New Town. We are wood and concrete block with a bit of stucco. And somehow the mix works, perhaps because the white picket fences and the tropical landscaping transition the edges.

It takes money — a lot of it — to preserve historic neighborhoods. It takes even deeper pockets to bring historic homes back to life while respecting their old bones. Just ask the folks in Miami Beach who are trying to figure out if they can preserve the Art Deco hotel architecture for which they are famous — without turning the preservation over to developers. It’s a Hobson’s Choice. No matter which way they go, there are bound to be downside consequences.

So, the good news is Key West looks beautiful and prosperous most everywhere one turns (well, except out along the boulevard, but things are a-changing there, too. The Winn-Dixie parking lot may prove to be beautiful.)

The bad news? Like in Miami Beach, the costs of preserving, renovating and building are beyond the resources of regular island folks.

And, whether we want to admit it, we know where it ends. To save its Art Deco hotels, Miami Beach will have to collaborate with developers and try not to look too hard at the towering condominiums behind the front walls. In Key West, at least for now, we’ll need to accept that our neighborhoods will have lovely historic homes and welcoming porches — and no one much at home. That’s the price we pay to preserve our island history.


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