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Hunting for treasured homes in Key West

By Jeannie Block
Published: Nov/Dec 2000

President Harry S. Truman often returned to this modest home, known as the Little White House on Frotn Street to escape the rigors of his job. /Bernard Block photo.
Key West, Florida’s southernmost city, is much more than a place for sea, sand and sun worship. It’s also a small town with an exciting history (1829–1905) of pirates and shipwrecks.

Today, rows of 19th-century wood houses keep some of those stories alive. The Key West Historic Homes Museum Walk will take you to six repositories filled with fascinating remembrances of days when fortunes were made by men–called wreckers–searching for shipwrecks and their valuable cargo.

Audubon House & Tropical Gardens

The structure (circa 1820) built by wrecker Capt. John Geiger today is the Audubon House & Tropical Gardens (205 Whitehead St.), a museum crammed with period furnishes. John J. Audubon stayed there for a short time in 1832 while researching his “Birds of America” folio.

A headset tour on CD guides you through an ornate dining room with a Chippendale table laden with china, crystal and Chinese silver flatware from the 1820s. Among the children’s special prizes is a charming Florentine theatre used for puppet shows.

An excellent Audubon gallery on site offers original art for sale.

For additional information, call the home at (305) 294-2116 or visit online at

The Curry Mansion

The rear of wrecker William Curry’s 1869 house is still part of the abode commissioned by son Milton in 1899 to be the most elaborate in Key West. Philadelphians Edith and Al Amsterdam bought it in 1974, filling it with outstanding period pieces and photos belonging to both the Curry’s and Amsterdams. Now the Curry Mansion Inn, it operates as a museum and hotel (511 Caroline St.).

On a self-guided tour of three floors, you’ll see treasures such as Dresden china, an inlaid table from 1798 and an ornate dining room set with gold-colored tableware.

For more information about the mansion, call (305) 294-5349.

Heritage House Museum and Robert Frost Cottage

The Heritage House Museum and Robert Frost Cottage (410 Caroline St.), circa 1834, was in wrecker John Lowe’s family for 70 years. Jesse Porter Newton in 1934 renovated the home and furnished it with family heirlooms.

A docent shows a collection of instruments from remote regions, fine foreign-made furniture salvaged from shipwrecks and a shell box made by Dr. Samuel Mudd who was (probably wrongly) implicated in President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Mudd made and sold these boxes while in prison on nearby Fort Jefferson. He gave one to Newton’s grandfather, Dr. Joseph Porter, after they had worked together to stamp out a yellow fever epidemic.

For additional information, call the museum at (305) 296-3573.

Wrecker’s Museum

Most reflective of the 1820-60 wrecker period is the Wreckers Museum (322 Duval St.) located in the oldest house in south Florida, circa 1829. In 1832, wrecker and ship captain Francis Watlington moved in. Once harbormaster, a record of daily movements of commodities and their dollar value sits open in Watlington’s office. Ship models, nautical items and his Confederate captain’s uniform also are on display.

About one-third of the furnishings are family pieces, many the fruit of shipwrecks. Among the intriguing antiques is a 1795 Federal Sofa.

In one room, posted wrecker license rules warn that saving lives comes first. Cargo removed from the vessels was sold at auction; the owner got one-half, the wrecker one-third, the rest went to bureaucrats and the state.

For additional information, call the museum at (305) 294-9502.

Hemingway Home and Museum

Even Nobel Prize winner Ernest Hemmingway’s limestone rock house (907 Whitehead St.), which he owned from 1931-51, was the 1851 concept of a wrecker, Asa Tift. The house shows costly antiques, a then-modern kitchen and personal items. His hunting trophies, books and typewriter on a small table are as they were in a study in an adjacent building.

Humorous docents tell tales of famous friends. You’ll meet some of the more than 50 cats that live in the lush garden. Most are descendants of the Hemingway’s felines. Cats with big paws have six toes.

For information, call (305) 294-1575 or visit online.

Harry S. Truman Little White House Museum

The modest house at 111 Front St. did not have a wrecker-built forerunner, but it does have a rich history. The 1890 Navy base commander’s quarters were unused, prompting Adm. Chester William Nimitz to suggest Truman rest there in November 1946. Reveling in it as a hideaway, the president came back many times over the years, so the home became known as the Little White House.

A gallery of news photos and a short movie precede a walkthrough of the six-bedroom, furnished residence. Props–like a walking stick, a valise and suitcases ready to be packed–mark his presence. You won’t see phones because Truman didn’t like them. You will see his desk, complete with a legendary sign, “The Buck Stops Here,” nightly poker table ready for play and his piano.

For additional information about the home, call (305) 294-9911.

Jeannie Block is a contributor from North Miami Beach, Fla.

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