The Unique Architecture Of Key West’s Historic Homes

When you think of the grandeur of the United States you can easily imagine a lot of big places and tall buildings but perhaps nowhere else in the US will you find something so immediately and clearly beautiful, delicate and yet very finite as the architecture of Key West, Florida. It’s a small place but there’s truly no place else like it anywhere else in the US and first time visitors are often heard to say, “Ohhhh…..it’s so beautiful! Why did they ever stop building like this?”

Of course, time changes everything but amidst the timeless serenity of the sea that surrounds Key West, Florida, situated as it is on the tip of Florida on the Southeast extremity of the United States…there is a very interesting story to be told. In most other ‘historical districts’ of the US you’ll find mostly replicas of the way they used to build but not so in Key West. Key West architecture has the distinction of having the largest historical district of wooden structures in the US.

The story of ‘why’ is very interesting. First of all, one must realize that Key West has gone through its phases of growth and pauses just like anywhere else. However, the events that have shaped the history of this remarkable city are truly unique. One must remember that Key West during its early history was very isolated from ‘the mainland’ and also that its citizenry was comprised of a very diverse mix, over the years, of immigrants, native Americans, the US military, sailors, Cubans, Caribbeans, and other ethnic groups. Each of these groups brought something and left something in the Key West area that can be seen today in its unique architecture. None can be more inique than the Peacon House (1885) pictured below; it’s octagonal shape is rare anywhere in the world  – and yet there is second Key West ‘octagon house’ just a couple blocks away on Dey Street.

Peacon Octagon House

Perhaps foremost in significance is the fact that Key West, being easily accessible by sea has always been influenced by ‘foreign’ ideas more so than more inland areas. Key West shows the influence of the almost no influence from its earliest Spanish settlers; rather mostly it shows the influence of early Victorian architecture which was the pinnacle of achievement of the golden days of Key West. The Havana Hurricane of 1846 and a major fire in 1886 wiped out most of the earlier buildings of any significance. The Oldest House (now a museum) built circe 1829 is one of the few remaining examples of Key West architecture and is an example of a typical Key West settler’s home.

The US military had a strong influence on the growth aif not the architecture of the area. Military pay and spending has always been good for any local community and that was certainly the case in Key West throughout all the years of the Spanish-American War, The American Civil War (when ‘the North’ retained possession of their forts in the Keys – and so interfered with shipping into the Gulf), World War 1 and World War 2 (when Key West was a very active training center). In fact, much of the ups and downs of the Key West economy have been directly related to the activity or lack of activity of the US military presence there.

Still, perhaps because of the wealth of the sea upon which so many of them depended, people in Key West have always been very independent and self-reliant. Also, the many hurricanes and other disasters which they’ve experienced have succeeded only in hardening their resolve to make their beautiful archipelago a nice place to live as reflected in the art and craft of their homebuilding and architecture. Although current building activity in the Key West area certainly uses more modern materials and techniques, the many single family homes in the Old Town Historical District were built mostly of a variety of termite resistant Pine – locally called “Dade County Pine” though very little of it is from Dade County. One of the reasons why so many of the old homes have stood up to time so well is because of the durability of that particular wood. In particular, its tight grain makes it unattractive — if not impervious — to termites.

In later years of the community’s growth, as settlement and modernization slowly but surely consumed the local natural woods, other woods such as Yellow Pine, Cypress and Cedar were also were used but, for the most part, natural wood has been the primary building material of the vast majority of the homes. You’ll not find much brick in Key West homes nor will you find much stone other than the Miami oolite, the native bedrock of that part of Florida, which is often used for the foundations of the homes and also for the piers upon which many of them are built. Since the weather is hot and humid for much of the year, the older homes were built with high ceilings and big windows for excellent ventilation. They didn’t have air-conditioning back then – and it was not uncommon to line up the front and back door to increase the flow of air through the rooms. Those homes are called “shotgun” houses – since you could fire a bullet through the front door out the back without touching a wall.

Another feature you see in most of these homes is old-fashioned porches, often going all the way around the house, where residents could sit outside, although still protected from the sun by the overhang of the porch, and enjoy socializing with their family and neighbors. Just to look at one of these homes is an invitation to “pull up a chair and sit a spell.” Most of these homes are artfully integrated with the local foliage of Palm Trees, Palmettos and other tropical, South Florida flora. It’s very colorful indeed and fits well into the backdrop of the blue of the sea and the sky and the white of the clouds which surround.

The specific styles of the older homes you’ll find in Key West include the following:

  • American Foursquare Spanish Colonial – The Hemingway House is a great example.
  • Bungalow
  • Classic Revival
  • Victorian – there are many particularly lovely Queen Anne style.
  • Frame Vernacular – the cigar maker’s houses and the shotgun style.

Perhaps no other style is so particularly Key West as the “Eyebrow” house, a Classic Revival design with a Southernmost Twist. The eyebrow refers to the deep extension of the roofline to create shade for the second floor. Early builders imagined the extended roofline would shelter the upper floor from the heat of the sun, but instead it blocked the sea breezes and did little to help cool the second story. There were only about 100 Eyebrow houses built. As with other Classic Revival homes built in Key West, the pillars are usually rectangular and fairly slender in place of classical round columns of this style.

Eyebrow House on Old Town's William St.

The reason for the variety of these influences is that local builders most often simply copied styles and designs they remembered from the places they had lived earlier. – or in the case of sea captains, from other ports they frequented. In spite of the many storms, hurricane and fires which Key West has experienced, the citizens have always shown a remarkable resilience in rebuilding back to the original specs. This tenacity is a large part of why Key West architecture is the national treasure that it is today.

The author, M.-J. Taylor, lives in the Southernmost City Florida, and writes on real estate, residential architecure and and the Key West, Florida Keys lifestyle for clients such as Broker Rudy Molinet.