While not apparent to those passing by, one of Key West’s most prominent national landmarks is currently undergoing major renovation. The Custom House— the red brick, award-winning museum that towers over Mallory’s historic seaport— is undergoing a complete overhaul to update the fire suppression, electrical and plumbing systems.
“This phase of the renovation targets some of the most important system upgrades to the building,” says Key West Art & Historical Society Executive Director Michael Gieda.
The 124 year old building— built in the Richardsonian Romanesque style of architecture typical of the late 19th century Federal buildings— was once home to the island’s postal service, district courts, and customs office. It was built to keep pace with lucrative trade routes and maritime industries that once made Key West the richest city per capita in the United States.
When the island city went bankrupt in the 1930s, the building was transferred to the U.S. Navy as headquarters for their Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico operations. Over time, the building was abandoned as surplus property and was later purchased in 1991 by the State of Florida’s Land Acquisition Advisory Council. In 1999, it reopened as a museum after a 9-year, $9 million restoration project spearheaded by the Key West Art & Historical Society to return the building to its former glory.
As with any other historic structure in the tropics, corrosion and repairs need to be addressed. Phase I— upgrading the second floor windows, was completed last fall with the unveiling of the newly restored and now hurricane-safe windows.
This second phase of renovations — implemented by Bender & Associate Architects, DL Porter, Nearshore Electric and Gary’s Plumbing— consists of numerous internal upgrades including streamlining electrical systems for energy efficiency, updating fire control systems, bringing plumbing systems up to code and installing additional basement pumps to prevent potential flooding during storms.
Phase II has been generously funded by the Dogwood Foundation, the Monroe County Tourist Development Council and the Society’s Keystone Circle of Donors.
Phase III will focus on roof repairs; Phase IV will upgrade the air conditioning system; and Phase V will repair and replace damaged and eroded masonry.
“All of these repairs and upgrades are extending the life of this historic building, the collections housed inside and the safety of our visiting public,” says Gieda.
The museum, which is open daily from 9:30AM – 4:30PM, offers two and a half floors of exhibitions that weave together two centuries of history, art, people, and events of the Florida Keys.
“As the crown jewel of Key West, the Custom House continues to play an important role within the community,” says Gieda. “It is the Society’s mission to continue to preserve this historic building for future generations.”
Those interested in supporting the Custom House restoration efforts and ensuring the continued preservation of one of the oldest museum collections in the Florida Keys may contact Christine Nottage, Development Director, at 305-295-6616 ext. 111.
Your museums. Your community. It takes an island.