History of the Custom House

The big red brick building in Mallory Square has been called the U.S. Custom House, but customs operations only formed part of what transpired inside its walls

A Strategic Island

Key West, along with Florida, became a United States territory after the ratification of the Adams-Onis Treaty with Spain in 1821. In January 1822, Alabama businessman John Simonton purchased the island for $2,000 due to its strategic location at the entrance to the Gulf of Mexico.  Geographically, Key West is situated 128 miles southwest of mainland Florida and 90 miles north of Cuba.  Its close proximity to trade routes connecting major ports in the United States, the Caribbean and the Americas made Key West an ideal destination for business entrepreneurs such as Simonton, as well as the U.S. military.

Bird's-Eye View of Key West, 1884
Bird's-Eye View of Key West, 1884
Sponge Docks, Key West, c1890s

Key West's Early Economy

Salvaging, importing and exporting, fishing, sponging and eventually cigar manufacturing formed the backbone of Key West’s 19th century economy. As a result, the island’s population grew rapidly.  When the island was initially settled, there were roughly 500 inhabitants, increasing to 5,675 by 1870, which more than tripled during the next two decades, reaching 18,080 by 1890.  This made Key West the most populated city in all of Florida.

Early Customs Operations

Key West’s expanding trade operations required a stronger federal presence on the island.  By 1828, Key West had been designated a U.S. Port of Entry, meaning the federal government established a Superior Court of the Southern Judicial District of the Territory of Florida in Key West.  In 1833, the government purchased land near the harbor and erected a small wooden structure to house its customs operations.  So lucrative were the customs operations that by 1882 the annual revenue generated in Key West alone was greater than the amount of revenue received from all other Florida ports combined.

Original Custom House on Front Street c1880
Architectural Drawing of the Custom House

Plans for The Custom House

Recognizing the importance of Key West’s growing economy, the U.S. Treasury authorized the construction of a larger building in 1885 to accommodate its customs operations. Over the next three years, the local construction firm of McDermott and Higgs laid the foundation for the current Custom House, at a cost of $10,647 and won the remaining construction contract with a bid of $72,555.

Construction of the Current Custom House

Soon after laying the Custom House’s foundation, a drunken arrangement nearly derailed the building’s construction.  During one alcohol-fueled evening on the island, John McDermott, a partner in the project, promised George Martin, a seedy local bar and dance hall owner, a significant portion of the contract.  Upon hearing the news, Lawrence Higgs, McDermott’s partner, contacted officials in Washington, D.C. claiming that any addenda to the original contract were void due to how intoxicated McDermott and Martin were during their night out together.

Higgs believed that he could complete the construction on his own; however, officials in Washington, D.C. opted to replace McDermott & Higgs as the Custom House contractors with a local cigar manufacturer, Augustine del Pino.  S.S. Harvey, the local government supervisor, immediately pointed out that del Pino possessed little knowledge of construction techniques and was even more appalled by his appointment of George Martin as his construction foreman.  Despite the disapproval, construction continued.

As construction moved forward so did the problems.  Key West’s chief U.S. District Judge James W. Locke questioned some of the unnecessary building features such as the numerous fireplaces.  Various government supervisors noted that many of the 917,000 bricks shipped from New York were spalled and discolored and that a number of window sills had been damaged in transit.  A noticeable flaw in the design was the lack of toilets inside the building, which posed a serious problem for the jurors of district court cases who had to be escorted down three flights of stairs and outside the building to use latrines.  Fortunately, the building was eventually equipped with the necessary amenities.

Custom House under Construction, c1888
Custom House under Construction
U.S. Custom House, Post Office and Federal Courthouse in 1926
U.S. Custom House, Post Office and Federal Courthouse in 1926

Custom House, U.S. Post Office and Federal Courthouse Opens in 1891

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, 1930s-1970s

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.

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.

Interior of the Custom House when occupied by the U.S. Navy
Custom House during Restoration in the 1990s
The Custom House now operates as the Key West Museum of Art & History
The Custom House now operates as the Key West Museum of Art & History

KWAHS Acquisition & Restoration

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 necessitated the installation of additional stairwells, an elevator, climate-control, 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 Key West Museum of Art & History.  It stands as the architectural crown jewel on the island.

Support The Custom House

All donations to the Custom House will be placed in the Community Foundation of the Florida Keys’ Custom House Preservation Fund