Originally created 12/23/01

The historic sites in Key West



KEY WEST, Fla. - This quirky village has a reputation as the bad boy who refuses to act his age - in this case, a considerable 172 years.

To the casual visitor or cruise ship passenger in port for a few hours, it may seem that open-air bars with live music outnumber even that sandspur of tourism, the T-shirt shop. The place appears to be a beachcomber's Bourbon Street, with the Jimmy Buffett songbook substituted for jazz.

It's true that Key West, which bills itself as the southernmost city in the continental United States, is remote from the rest of the nation, and not just in miles from the mainland.

In recent decades, the town gained panache as a winter-weekend home for jetsetters. Some blame Ralph Lauren's wildly overpriced purchase of a large, old-style house for starting the immigration of Beautiful People.

But something - maybe it was former resident Buffett's Margaritaville, which implies escaping civilization's pressures by moving to land's end - also brought an under class of residents.

A walk through Key West now turns up would-be flower children, occasionally being led down tacky Duval Street by leashed ferrets, and homeless souls squatting on blankets by plastic jugs for donations or taking siestas in doorways next to their crammed shopping carts.

Hucksters show off a tame macaw or a cockatiel, looking for money after the tourists pet the birds or have their photos taken with them. At least one bar touts itself as clothing-optional.

What this sort of tawdry look-see excludes are the worthwhile historic sites contained in a very walkable area downtown. If you don't want to walk, you can climb aboard the famed tour-trams that circle the island, or set your own course by renting a motor scooter, bicycle or amusingly shaped little electric car.

However you set off through your history lesson, be ready to learn the truth that is much more interesting than the carnival tourists may assume is the real Key West.

The following suggested tour works out from the cruise-ship docks, because so many first-time visitors are half-day-trippers from the big ships. You can easily do any four of the first five stops in less than five hours, including the walking. Although the sixth stop is just across the street from No. 5, it requires a few minutes to hike up 88 steps on its spiral staircase.

But if you can manage the last stop, afterward treat yourself to a piece of frozen key lime pie on a stick, dipped in chocolate. Or maybe a couple of beers - it's usually happy hour someplace in Key West.

SCULPTURE GARDEN

An enjoyable and unusual presentation of the town's history is far easier to appreciate than its name hints: the Key West Historic Memorial Sculpture Garden.

At the entrance of a vest-pocket park near the 67-year-old aquarium stands an 18-by-25-foot sculpture, The Wreckers, a romantic image of men straining at salvaging a foundering ship and its passengers.

Beyond this statue in the 4-year-old park are more than 30 bronze busts of local pioneers and heroes. Plaques explain their achievements.

Here, for instance, visitors strolling about meet Jeffrey B. Browne, who in the latter half of the 19th century served the town as customs collector, county attorney, postmaster, state senator and judge and, from 1916-23, was chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court.

Here, too, is "Uncle Sandie" Cornish, born a slave in Maryland in 1793. As an adult, Cornish bought his freedom but was sold back into slavery by unscrupulous whites. To thwart them, Cornish severely cut his legs and lopped off the fingers of one hand, so that he had no value as a laborer. Thus free again, he moved to Key West in the 1840s and became a prosperous produce merchant.

ART AND HISTORY

Three blocks from the Sculpture Garden is a landmark building, nearly brazen in its size and color. The Key West Museum of Art and History was completed in the Romanesque Revival style thought to imply both power and culture. Originally built to be a customs house, it served successively as federal courthouse and post office. In 1898, a court of inquiry was held here into the sinking of the USS. Maine, in Havana harbor.

After a variety of other government uses, the building was closed in 1974, but the Art & Historical Society took possession and spent about $8 million restoring it inside and out. It reopened in 1999. Its deep red color is remarkable to see in pastel-flavored Florida - as are its 20-foot ceilings, 15-foot arched windows and 12 fireplaces.

Traveling exhibits currently on display include photos of Cuba taken in 1998 and portraits of a wide spectrum of Key West residents. Both of these exhibits and the cigar art display will be in place through Feb. 18.

A FAMOUS RESIDENT

It wasn't too many years ago that Mel Fisher was the most famous Key West resident. Fisher lived a piece of the American dream, but he took it several million steps further than most.

About 1950, Fisher moved from his home state of Indiana to California, where he operated a chicken ranch and what is believed to be the first scuba-diving shop in the state. Intrigued by diving, he finally sold the ranch and moved with his Montana-born wife, Deo, to Redondo Beach in 1953. There they operated a dive shop fulltime.

When Fisher lectured to sold-out venues on how to use the relatively new diving gear to search California rivers for gold, he knew he was on to something.

He became interested in diving for real treasure, the kind historians knew had been lost aboard Spanish galleons that sank after leaving the New World for Spain.

He concentrated on the ships in a 28-vessel convoy that left Havana in September 1622 and just two days later sailed into a hurricane. Two major ships, the Nuestra Senora de Atocha and the Santa Margarita, were damaged, blown west toward the Keys and eventually sank, with 550 lives lost. But these ships were known to have carried much valuable cargo, and Fisher wanted it.

He began his search about 1965, but it would not be until July 1973 that his divers made a major find: nine cannons and some large ingots of silver. Then, in July 1985 - about 20 years after Fisher began his search - his divers found what they proclaimed "the mother lode." In the years since, workers have recovered 976 silver bars, each weighing from 75 to 90 pounds, for a total of more than 35 tons of silver.

They also recovered 215 gold bars, and discs and chunks of gold, tens of thousands of silver coins, plus Incan ceremonial and service pieces of silver.

A sampling of this treasure, as well as cannons and everyday 17th century items is on display at the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society. Most of the displays are old-tech, but it hardly matters when visitors reach the two small galleries that show the stuff most came to see: silver bars, gold pieces and a 78-1/4-carat emerald valued at more than $500,000.

The only "interactive" exhibit in the treasure room is a treat: You can put your hand through holes in a lucite case and grasp a bar of the gold that weighs more than 4 1/2 pounds. For a few seconds you have hold of more than $15,000 in gold, but it is gold that was melted and poured into this form four centuries ago.

If that appeals to you, the museum gift shop offers some of Fisher's salvaged artifacts at jaw-dropping prices. Depending on the quality of the silver and clarity of the identifying marks stamped into the ingots before they were shipped, prices for the bars range from $18,000 to $24,000.

A 319-gram gold bar - about 11 ounces - is priced at $75,000; coins about the size of a nickel or a quarter are priced at $9,750. Or if you are looking for that special souvenir of your Key West trip, a large spoon made of gold is priced at $560,000.

SPECIAL HOUSES

Barely two blocks away is a piece of history not nearly so ancient nor expensive. The Heritage House Museum is a handsome two-story place built as a home in the 1830s. Since then, only two families have owned it. The last resident, Jessie Porter, worked to preserve her home and other historic structures against the onslaught of time and so-called development.

Her family bought the house in 1934, and she became such a noted hostess that she was featured in Life magazine in 1942. Probably her most famous guest was a regular winter visitor from 1945-60: Robert Frost would live in the cottage at the side of the enchanting backyard patio. Here he would sit beneath the banyans and bromeliads to try out his poetry on his friend, the philosopher John Dewey.

Guides will point out the wrought-iron bench on the brick patio in which Gloria Swanson was once photographed; other regulars here were Tallulah Bankhead, Ernie Pyle and Key West resident Tennessee Williams.

The Heritage House Museum is one of several handsome old, large homes on Caroline Street, evidence of Key West's wealth even in the 1800s. Another home from that period is about seven blocks away, known for an occupant who left the place in 1940, just nine years after moving in.

The Asa Tift home was already 80 years old when Ernest and Pauline Hemingway bought it in 1931. Comfortable but hardly large, the two-story house had a master bedroom and a second bedroom for their two sons, two bathrooms and a wrap-around porch upstairs. The first floor had a roomy living room, smaller dining room and kitchen.

The room that most visitors want to see is actually in the back yard, on the second story of the former carriage house. In this sizable room, Hemingway sat - and stood, for his World War I wounds pained him when he sat too long - and wrote an estimated 70 percent of his body of work.

All about the grounds, and inside the house as they see fit, are descendants of the couple's famed six-toed cats. A fulltime employee cares for the cats, some of whom are geriatrics in their early 20s. They sprawl about grounds thick with huge ferns, traveler vines, palms, banyans and bamboo.

LIGHTHOUSE MUSEUM

Neither guides nor cats seem to take notice of the regular [filtered word]-a-doodle-dos coming from across the street. The rooster and chickens - and one cat - live at the base of the Key West Lighthouse Museum, yet another building with a story to tell of the old days.

At least partly in an effort to best the wreckers, the government built a lighthouse in 1848, to a height of 68 feet. In 1894, 20 feet were added, to make its light visible up to 15 miles at sea. The light was decommissioned in 1969.

A climb up its spiral staircase - there are a couple of platforms on which to catch your breath or to reassure your knees - provides a circular view of much of Key West.