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Key West History

Key West's long and colorful past begins with its European discovery in 1513 by Ponce de Leon. The island was first known as Cayo Hueso (Isle of Bones) because it was littered with remains from an Indian battlefield or burial ground. The name "Key West" is the English version of the Spanish term. The first permanent occupancy in the City occurred in 1822, complete with a small naval depot, whose purpose was to rid the area of pirates. The presence of the U.S. Navy has been a major factor in the growth and development of Key West ever since. The settlement was incorporated in 1828, four years after becoming the county seat of Monroe County. The City grew and prospered, based first on fishing and salvaging ships wrecked on the nearby reefs, and later on cigar manufacturing with Cuban refugees and imported Cuban tobacco. Other economic activities included sponging and related commercial functions. By 1890, Key West was the largest and richest city in Florida. However, after the turn of the century its major industries were in decline. Little construction was undertaken between the First and Second World Wars and the City saw a steady decline in population between 1919 and 1935.

World War II brought prosperity back to Key West. Population more than doubled between 1940 and 1960. Nation-wide military base closings and personnel reductions beginning in the 1960s were major contributors to the City's second major cycle of population decline. After recording the highest number of residents in its history in 1960, Key West experienced over a 25 percent loss in population by 1980. The 1990 Census showed a slight increase.

There are large numbers of buildings in the community that are near or over a century old. The historical structures of Key West are not grand public facilities, as churches and government buildings, but are homes and cottages-still in private ownership-built by persons without formal architectural training. These historical buildings are found in a 190 block ( 919 acre) area in the western end of the City. Within the historical area are 2,580 structures containing the greatest cluster of wooden buildings in Florida and one of the largest concentrations in the U.S. Generally, the structures date from 1886 to 1912, but they represent the building tradition of Key West from 1838.

The city's historical area, known as "Old Town", has a very distinctive appearance, combining features of both New England and Bahamian building styles. The basic features which distinguish the local architecture includes wood frame construction of one to two-and-a-half story structures set on foundation piers about three feet above the ground. Exterior characteristics of the buildings are peaked "tin" roofs, horizontal wood siding, pastel shades of paint, side-hinged louvered shutters, covered porches (or balconies, galleries, or verandas) along the fronts of the structures, and wood lattice screens covering the area elevated by the piers. A small but striking characteristic is the wooden balustrade and other ornamental trim present around the porches. The neighborhoods in which these buildings are located have their own distinctive features. These include a grid street pattern, buildings set close to each other and to the street, a diverse mix of building sizes and heights, fences of wood picket or wrought iron or low masonry walls, and dozens of alleys or lanes, with their own cluster of dwellings, entering the local street system at irregular intervals.

History Provided by Key West Planning Department, 2000
www.keywestcity.com/

Historical Photos provided by State of Florida Historical Photo Archives

HISTORICAL PHOTOS


1890 Photo of Key West Courthouse


1898 Key West Harbor


1920's Photo of Duval Street


Postcard showing the Sponge Market and Post Office


View from LaConcha - 1926

 

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