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October 28, 2016.  – (Key West, FL).  Keeping it Cool at the Custom House Museum

Though the reigning beauty of the Custom House is apparent, the painstaking efforts the Key West Art & Historical Society puts forth to preserve it may not be. Neck-deep in a 6-phase Custom House restoration plan proposed by the building’s original restoration architect Bert Bender of Bender and Associates Architects, P.A., the Key West Art & Historical Society turns their efforts towards an updated climate control system. With 16 years since it one was installed, it is in dire need of improvement.

Though the price tag to install the new system needed to safeguard their award-winning exhibitions and permanent collection archived on the upper floor is hefty—$550 thousand-dollars, the Society is keeping their cool, working deftly at raising the funds needed to install the new system.  As the 125th Custom House Anniversary approaches, so does the “Back In Time” Fundraiser event to celebrate it—an event that will allocate funds to support this very important renovation phase.

To date, the Society is starting Phase 4— which entails repairing and replacing masonry work at the back of the building, something the initial 1999 renovation ran out of funds to fully address. This, and the first three phases— window restoration and hurricane proofing; electric/plumbing and fire control systems; and roof repairs— have totaled nearly  1 million dollars in the last three years, funded primarily by the Dogwood Foundation, the Monroe County TDC, the State of Florida’s Department of Historical Resources, the Helmerich Trust, The Old Island Restoration Foundation, The Society’s Capital Funds,  and individual contributions.

The historic building, which opened in 1891 as a centerpiece of federal authority in the State of Florida, originally housed the Collector of Customs, the Postal Service, Federal Courthouse and the Lighthouse 7th District Office and signified a touchstone for the island’s lucrative trade routes and maritime industries. When wartime efforts took reign, the Custom House transitioned into Naval base operations and offices; after forty years, the building was no longer needed. The Custom House, in near-derelict condition, was boarded up and left to sit untouched in the salt air and sun for over two decades.

Appointed as stewards to the 100 year-old building in 1991, the original Society leadership spearheaded an ambitious 9 year, 9 million-dollar renovation with the support of the community.  However, the building slowly fell into quiet disrepair after maintenance needs were unsupported between 1999 and 2012.  Current leadership has reignited the commitment to preserving the island’s crown jewel, not only because their lease requires it, but because the historic building represents their mission—educating the local community and visiting public by preserving, interpreting and exhibiting the art, architecture and history of the Florida Keys through its diverse educational programs, exhibitions and offerings—while providing them with a central hub from which to deliver these cultural treasures.

“We’ve already completed three phases of the renovations and are just starting phase 4, which is fully funded,” says Society Executive Director Michael Gieda, who brought the renovations into place when he took the helm of leadership 4 years ago. “We raised money, applied for and won grants, and completed almost 1 million-dollars worth of work since 2013.

With that sort of restoration momentum behind them and the foresight needed to correct potential future problems, the Society and all of its exhibits, programs, and events can continue to keep their cool, and our island’s crown jewel can shine on for another 125 years.

For more information call Executive Director Michael Gieda at 295.6616 x 103 or visit WWW.KWAHS.ORGYour Museums.  Your Community.  It Takes an Island. 


Surrounded by artifacts, art and Key West memorabilia in the climate-controlled Custom House fourth floor collection room, Key West Art & Historical Society Curator Cori Convertito, Ph.D., holds an acid-free storage box containing a rare set of boxing gloves owned and worn by the late author and Key West resident Ernest Hemingway. KWAHS is currently fundraising to upgrade the antiquated climate control system, the fifth of a six phase Custom House renovation project begun in 2013.