Architecture of Key West

By George Born, Former Director, Historic Florida Keys Foundation

Key West architecture is a product of nearly two centuries of growth and change, influenced by a variety of factors.

The region’s natural resources offered limited building materials. South Florida slash pine — Dade County pine — proved to be hard and resistant to decay, but lumbering eventually depleted supply. Soon, builders employed other Southern woods, such as yellow pine, cypress, and cedar. Miami oolite, the bedrock of the Lower Keys, saw use mainly as foundation piers — and only rarely as building stone for whole structures.

Key West’s hot tropical climate also influenced building. Faced with long, sweltering summers, early settlers built houses on piers, allowing air to circulate underneath floors. Additionally, front porches and louvered shutters provided shady, well-ventilated living spaces, whose occupants lived without the benefit of fans or air conditioning. Upstairs, roof scuttles — similar in form to hatches on the decks of ships — permitted much-needed ventilation of attics. For similar reasons, Key West’s unique eyebrow houses featured cooling second-floor windows sheltered under overhanging front porches. Moreover, unwanted sources of heat, such as fireplaces and later stoves, saw use only in kitchen outbuildings separate from main houses. Meanwhile, seasonal dry spells required using gutters, downspouts, and cisterns to channel and store rainwater.

Early building types focused on primary functions: houses, warehouses, and churches. Later, as the economy diversified and the population grew, other building types appeared, too, such as military structures, government offices, and cigar factories. Nevertheless, most historic buildings in Key West are single-family houses, exhibiting a charming variety of scale, form, and ornamentation. Many interiors boast walls and ceilings of tongue-and-groove wood sheathing instead of plaster.

The military made a significant and visible contribution to Key West architecture. Establishing its base near Mallory Square, the Navy gradually expanded to cover most of the south side of the island. Further concern about security during and after the Spanish-American War led to more construction on base.

The cultural heritage of incoming settlers also influenced architecture. Wreckers from the Bahamas arriving before the Civil War constructed simple, well-proportioned buildings exemplifying the best of vernacular architecture. Soon, American influence — from New England to the Deep South — brought Key West more into the architectural mainstream.

The first national style in the United States, based on ancient Greek and Roman prototypes, saw expression in Key West between the 1850s and the 1880s. Such Classical Revival buildings often boast a gable (or “temple-front” façade) featuring columns rising two stories and supporting a clearly defined triangular pediment. By the end of the century, the Queen Anne style burst into flower, replete with soaring turrets, complex roof forms, asymmetrical massing, and a variety of surface treatments, including scroll-sawn “gingerbread” decoration.

The influx of Cubans in the last third of the 19th century left a three-part architectural legacy. Large cigar factories heralded the arrival of a new economic mainstay, small cigar makers’ cottages provided simple worker accommodations, and elaborate manufacturers’ mansions displayed the wealth of these new enterprises.

Lastly, disasters such as hurricanes and fires have affected Key West architecture. Hurricanes in 1846, 1909, 1910 and 1919 brutally demonstrated the need to pay attention to the siting, scale, and underpinnings of buildings. At the same time, fires in 1843, 1859, 1886 and 1923 taught the need for flame-resistant construction, such as masonry walls and metal shingle roofs.