Key West for culture trippers

Tuesday, August 28th, 2012. Filed under: Architecture Art Destination Guides Florida

A 19th-century Conch cottage in Key West’s Solares Hill neighborhood.

Key West is the last of the Florida Keys, a series of cayos, or small islands, linked by U.S. Hwy 1.

Like Alice passing through the looking-glass, I entered the Florida Keys through a dissolving veil of rain. The summer squall cleared as fast as it had blown in and I spent several sunny days exploring Key West’s unique architecture and thriving arts scene.

There’s always something raffish about a port town. With its strange past of pirates, shipwrecks, Victorian-era boom and Depression-era bust, Southern Gothic meets tropical-noir in Key West. Poking about its old lanes, peeking at 19th-century Conch cottages and shuttered mansions through overgrown palms, is one of the island’s great pleasures. Night conjures ghosts, all the more reason to duck into a bar, listen in on tales of big fish and travel–and perhaps tell one of your own.

Historically isolated, Key West has an independent spirit that appeals to creative types: painters inspired by the Keys’ jade seas and luminous light, writers inspired by a literary legacy that includes Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams and poet Elizabeth Bishop.

In your wanderings, be sure to stop at the following. You’ll see wonderful things and meet some really interesting people.

My Gyotaku print of a grunt required no special equipment. Try it at home!

Key West Art Center and Gallery, 301 Front Street: Key West’s oldest (and non-profit) gallery has been promoting local artists since 1960. The quaint wood building, near the waterfront, dates from the 1850s. I had one of my most unusual experiences here: making a print from a real fish at a workshop conducted by Gyotaku expert Kim Workman. Gyotaku originated in Japan where fishermen once used the technique to document their catch.  Ink is brushed onto an actual fish and rice paper pressed over it by hand to create a print. Kim uses a conservation technique whereby bait specimens become bait again and edible fish – like the small grunt I worked with – are eventually eaten. The gallery is a great place to pick up original paintings and prints of Key West landmarks and landscapes, varied in both style and price.

Gallery on Greene, 606 Greene Street: Art dealer and director Nance Frank grew up in the same neighborhood as renowned folk artist Mario Sanchez and has written several books about him. Remarkably, a few of Sanchez’s delightful depictions of old Key West were available for sale when I was there. Gallery on Greene’s stable includes other significant Keys artists like Peter Vey, Jeff MacNelly, Andy Thurber. I especially loved Karen Sheridan’s colour-saturated paintings of Key West cottages and Suzie Depoo’s floating unicorns that incorporate vintage ‘dump’ glass.

Handsome doggie mascot Seaborn greets visitors to Gallery on Greene.

Custom House Museum, 281 Front Street: This grand building houses extraordinary Ernest Hemingway memorabilia (his blood-stained WWI uniform, boxing gloves and an essay he wrote at age 9 declaring he intended ‘to travel and write’). A permanent collection includes the workbench, tools and intaglio carvings of Mario Sanchez, acclaimed ‘the greatest living Cuban-American folk artist of the 20th century’ by the American Museum of Folk Art in NYC.

Hemingway House.

Hemingway House, 907 Whitehead Street: The Nobel prize-winning author lived here from 1931 to 1940, when he left his second wife and moved to Cuba with his third wife. The Spanish Colonial mansion (1851) was built of coral rock quarried on site. Don’t miss Hemingway’s writing room, above the former carriage house, overlooking the pool Ava Gardner swam in. Artist Mario Sanchez also lived in this neighborhood near the lighthouse. The two men knew each other and Sanchez depicted Hemingway and his distinctive house in several works.

La Concha Hotel, 430 Duval Street: Ernest Hemingway began writing To Have and Have Not (largely set in Key West) and Tennessee Williams finished A Streetcar Named Desire  at this National Historic Landmark (1926) in the heart of Key West’s historic district. La Concha’s rooftop bar and patio with sweeping ocean views is a great spot to toast the sunset in style right on Duval.

Ernest Hemingway’s writing room, Hemingway House.

Blue Heaven restaurant, 729 Thomas St.: Keys pink shrimp n’ grits, pineapple pancakes – breakfast outdoors with the roosters at this restaurant in Bahama Village and you’ll also see where Ernest Hemingway used to referee outdoor boxing matches.

Key West Library, 700 Fleming St.: This adorable shell-pink branch of the Monroe County Public Library is an air-conditioned stop in one of Key West’s most atmospheric neighborhoods, not far from the cemetery. Peek into the Florida History room and ask to see the Hemingway documents which include juvenilia and the last galley copy of To Have and Have Not, complete with Hemingway’s handwritten notations. Online, a fascinating archive of old Keys’ photographs.

Key West Island Books, 513 Fleming St.: Seeking rare Hemingway first editions, used beach reads, a key lime cookbook or mysteries by Key West authors? Must-stop shop in Key West.

Tropic Cinema, 416 Eaton St.: Rated the Best Cinema in Florida, the Tropic Cinema is home to the Key West Film Society and shows popular releases and kids’ movies as well as the best of independent, foreign and alternative film. The Tropic will be a main venue for the first-ever Key West Film Festival to be held November 29 – December 2, 2012.

Key West is an exotic tropical garden.

I would love a month or six to soak up Key West’s ambiance and explore more of its vine-shrouded secrets. Free spirits with a penchant for tropical splendor and mystery will never want to leave.

I stayed at Cypress House, a newly-renovated Victorian-era Conch mansion (1888) with wrap-around porches, a 40-foot pool, friendly staff and loads of atmosphere. Cypress Inn is one of six Historic Key West Inns, stylish boutique guesthouses within strolling distance of nearly everything you’ll want to see in Old Town.

For more on things to do in Key West, including a calendar of festivals and events, accommodation links and live-streaming webcams, see The Florida Keys, official website of the Monroe County Tourist Development Council.

There’s always a shady side of the street in Key West.

Old hotel signage on Duval Street refers to the Southern Cross constellation.


A Conch cottage the exact shade of key lime pie. Key West’s indigenous architecture was often built by ships’ carpenters and blends West Indian, Colonial and Victorian styles.


A massive cassia fistula – or Golden Shower – tree.


Key West branch of Monroe County Public Library.


Poet Arlo Haskell (left) of Key West Literary Seminar and historian Tom Hambright (right) discuss Hemingway memorabilia in the Florida History Room of Key West public library.

At dusk, bronze busts in the Key West Historic Memorial Sculpture Garden seem to float above their coral rock pedestals like apparitions.

Blue Heaven restaurant.

Breakfast with the roosters at Blue Heaven restaurant.

Bahama Village neighborhood. Key West has always been diverse, with many early immigrants arriving from the Bahamas and Cuba. 

In One Era vintage and antiques shop, Petronia Street.

Tropic Cinema is a great place to catch independent, foreign, alternative and popular film releases.

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