The Custom House, located at 281 Front Street and overlooking Mallory Square, is one of the most beautiful and recognizable edifices in Key West. It is fitting that this building now houses so much information about the history of Key West as the building itself has a long history and has been through much.
Originally opened in 1891 as the island’s post office, custom office, and court house, these offices eventually moved to their own buildings and by the 1930’s the Navy was utilizing the building. In 1973 the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, but the Navy had since stopped using the building and it began to fall into disrepair. In 1976 the City of Key West was given ownership of the building, but there were no clear plans as far as what to do with the building. Then in 1991 the Florida Land Acquisition Advisory Council purchased the building and the Key West Art and Historical Society began its restoration which was completed in 1999.
Today, the building is a national landmark considered to be the crown jewel of Key West. It houses 200 years worth of island history on two of the four floors that are open to the public.
The last time I visited the museum was probably about ten years ago, so my husband and I decided it was time for another visit. Upon entering and paying the fee, we walked into the the doors and to the right was the first exhibit, “Depicting Hemingway.” This exhibit is comprised of 59 sketches by Guy Harvey following the storyline of The Old Man and the Sea. Each sketch is accompanied by an except from the book. Complementing these works are a few other Hemingway pieces of art and nostalgia. Since I am a huge Hemingway fan, this was my favorite exhibit and I liked revisiting the Hemingway novella which I had not read since college.
Next, it was up the stairs and to the next exhibit. But before we get to that, as we went up the stairs, the walls were covered with paintings of Key West residents that held importance in one way or another. Portraits include those of Ernest Hemingway, Lee Ida Mac Neil, Queen of the Key Lime Pie, and Eleanor Walsh, Key West Cigar Lady to name a few.
Once upstairs there is a room dedicated to the late Wilhelmina Harvey, who served as the first woman juror in Monroe County, the first woman County Commissioner, the first woman County Mayor, and the only woman from Monroe County to be inducted into the Florida Governor’s Hall of Fame.
The Industrious Key West exhibit focuses on the history of Key West’s economy. Mainly, wrecking, sponging, turtling, transportation, and cigar making, which were all at one time during the island’s history important industries.
Flagler’s Speedway makes up a huge portion of this floor’s exhibits. Famed for his business acumen, he was responsible for having the Overseas Railway built. This enormous effort is depicted through film, audio clips, photos, and other means.
And of course the exhibits are rounded out with more Papa Hemingway information, pictures, and paraphernalia.
Some of these exhibits will be replaced by others. Coming soon, “Tennessee Williams, Painter and Playwright” exhibit will mark the thirty year anniversary of the death of this former Key West resident. And “Anything Goes” exhibit will showcase memorabilia reminiscent of musician Cole Porter.
The Custom House is open daily from 9:30 to 4:30 pm everyday except for Christmas Day. Admission is $9.00 with discounts for children, seniors, locals, and AAA members.
To see what is happening on the island during your visit, check out our Key West Events Calendar to see other upcoming special events. For more information about the fun side of Key West… things to do and see in our island city, go to our Key West Web Site.
Before deciding where you are going to eat while visiting Key West or any of the Florida Keys, be sure to read my restaurant reviews; check out our restaurant review section of this blog.
Feel free to Email Me if you have any questions about Key West!!
Island Genn – Your Key West Concierge