Fascinating Key West history at the Audubon House & Tropical Gardens
One of the reasons so many of us love Key West, and why we return time and time again, is surely the rich history of this southernmost island. When you arrive in Old Town, you're not embarking on any old island getaway, but an experience which gives a deeper appreciation for the past. From its stunning architecture to its institutions such as the Key West Lighthouse and the Ernest Hemingway Home, there is so much to see that one visit rarely suffices. This brings me to one unforgettable gem of Key West history: the Audubon House and Tropical Gardens.
(The garden view of the Audubon House in Key West. Photo by Island Runaways/Z.A.)
While the Hemingway homes reflects how a 20th century writer lived in Key West, the Audubon House reaches back much further in time, and offers us an insight into the lives and times of a wealthy local family. You'll find the home with its magnificent gardens on Whitehead Street, across from the Mel Fisher Museum. As the Conch Train went clanging by, and the summer temperature rose, the Island Runaways duo (Zickie and I) were thrilled to arrive at this beautiful oasis. After you buy your tickets in the gift shop, you stroll across to the impressive entrance and front porch.
(A peek at the impressive entrance to the Audubon House. Photo by Laura Albritton.)
Given the sweltering heat outside, we felt relieved to enter the air-conditioned front hallway. Here, a volunteer named Greg gave us an interesting overview of the property. The first question travelers inevitably ask? Did famous naturalist and painter John James Audubon live or stay here? The answer is no. But when Audubon spent six weeks in Key West in 1832, he did indeed stay just nearby, and local lore says that he entered the property's garden to retrieve a branch of a special tree (now called the Geiger tree) to depict in a painting. One of his paintings provides evidence that the painter did step foot on the grounds. However, if this wasn't Audubon's home, what's the story? And why is this house in particular important to the island's history?
(The well-laid table in the dining room on the first floor. Photo by Island Runaways/Z.A.)
Long before Key West became a flourishing tourist mecca, the island thrived as an enormously successful seaport and center for wrecking. (At one point in the 1800's, Key West became one of the richest towns in America!) Due to the perils of the Florida Reef, many ships went aground on the sharp corals; the wreckers would arrive, save the crew, and then salvage the cargo. One sea captain who grew increasingly successful was Captain John Huling Geiger. A man of determination and strong will, he built a fortune and eventually had this beautiful house constructed just next to the port, so that all newcomers could ooh and ahh over his great good fortune.
(The Geiger children's bedroom. Photo by Island Runaways/Z.A.)
Although I personally love reading books, there's nothing like seeing first hand the clothes people wore, the dishes they ate from, and even their chamber pots (!) to truly bring the reality of past centuries home. These familial spaces seem so intimate, it's as if the children might rush back in and jump into bed. Trust me when I say that there are fascinating stories to discover as you go from room to room, many more than I could ever cover in a blog post. Another treat for visitors are the many Audubon prints from The Birds of America, some of them quite large and valuable. One of my favorites is the pelican, along with the brilliantly pink flamingo. Viewing these works in person gives you an appreciation for the painter's talent and precision.
(You will see striking Audubon prints throughout the house. Photo by Island Runaways/Z.A.)
Don't miss the wonderful documentary with one of the Geiger descendants (which you can watch on the third floor of the house). Here you'll learn some surprising stories, including a dark tale from the family's slave-owning past. All of this might have been lost if not for one couple, Mitchell and Frances Wolfson, who purchased the home in the 1950s, just before it was going to be demolished to make way for a gas station. These forward-thinking preservationists restored the building; today the Wolfson family's foundation ensures that it remains open as a museum and cultural treasure. Before you leave, you'll want to tour the gardens with their gorgeous orchids and tropical plants. You can also see the family's outhouse and a replica of the cookhouse. Looking inside this replica once again plunges you back into another era.
(The cookhouse. In that time, flamingos were eaten for dinner! Photo by Island Runaways/Z.A.)
One final stop takes you to the gift shop, full of delightful gifts, cards, and books. They also sell a variety of genuine Audubon prints; in fact, their Audubon Print Gallery is one of the world's most reputable Audubon print dealers. All in all, I found so much to see and absorb, from the charming fountain with koi in one corner of the garden, to lovely 19th century antiques in the house itself. While it's essential to watch the sunset at Mallory Square and pop by Sloppy Joe's or Green Parrot Bar when you reach Key West, I came away from this trip thinking that the Audubon House is absolutely a Florida Keys "Must Visit."
The Audubon House and Tropical Gardens is located at 205 Whitehead Street. It is open daily for tours from 9:30 am to 4:15 pm.