Use, Decline and Restoration
Despite the difficulties and delays in construction, the Custom House opened in April of 1891 at a total cost of $107,955 which was roughly $30,000 over budget. Key West’s harsh subtropical climate took an immediate toll on the building as the salty air eroded parts of it while the hurricanes of 1909, 1910, and 1919 caused considerable damage.
The new building housed Key West’s Customs Offices, District Court, and Post Office. When it first opened, the building was occupied on the first floor by the postal and customs services, with the second floor containing the court room and court offices, while the lighthouse inspector and other government officials were housed on the third floor. During its prime, the Custom House heard thousands of cases and judgments ranging from rum runners to ship salvaging claims. The most significant proceedings dealt with the 1898 sinking of the USS Maine in Havana harbor, which lead to the Spanish-American War.
U.S. Navy Offices
As the decades passed, the Custom House saw a decrease in use. In the 1930s, the Customs Offices, the District Court, and the Post Office all moved into new facilities. The Navy moved some of its personnel into the building, converting it into a utilitarian office space. They dropped the ceilings and turned the large, gracious rooms into small, functional offices. The beautifully arched wrap-around porch was also enclosed to create additional workspace.
National Register of Historic Places
Despite the fact that in 1973 the Custom House was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Navy decided to abandon the building. With all of its former tenants relocated, the Custom House was sealed, fenced off and left to feral cats, transients, and general decay. In 1976, after being declared a Historic Custom House by the Treasury Department, the structure’s ownership title was given to the city of Key West.
Proposed Usage & Final Acquisition
Throughout the 1980s, the Custom House’s future remained in doubt. Various plans were drafted which saw the historic building being converted into a yacht club and at one point even to an upscale resort. Ultimately, after being sold in 1991 to the Florida Land Acquisition Advisory Council, the Key West Art & Historical Society undertook the restoration of the dilapidated building.
In 1993, historic renovations began on the building under the supervision of lead architect Bert Bender. What had originally cost less than $110,000 to build in four years cost nearly $9 million to renovate over nine years. Restoration of the building followed historical preservation guidelines and used original construction materials. The building required modernization in order to accommodate a public museum and offices. This required the installation of additional stairwells, an elevator, temperature-controlled climates, archival rooms, offices, and facilities to accommodate over 300,000 visitors a year. With restorations completed in 1999, the Key West Art & Historical Society reopened the Custom House as the crown jewel in Key West.