Preserve The Custom House
About the Custom House & Ongoing Restoration
A stunning sight for visitors when it opened in 1891, the Custom House still stands as one of the finest examples of Richardsonian Romanesque architecture in the United States. The building originally housed the U.S. Customs House, the island’s Post Office and Federal Courthouse.
Prior to the Civil War, the majority of Key West businesses were related to maritime industries. The tremendous boom in the salvaging or wrecking trade made the Federal Courts extremely active during the 19th century. As Key West was the primary harbor in South Florida, the Customs revenue increased considerably each year. As operation expanded, so did the need for government facilities. By 1882, a request for a new building was under review in Congress with funds allocated to the project in 1885. The building was to be used to accommodate the United States District and Circuit Courts, the Custom Service, the Post Office and other government offices. Plans and specifications for the construction of the Custom House were taken from typical government buildings of the period. When the building was completed and opened in 1891, the total cost of the project reached $107,955.96. The Post Office was the first department to occupy the new federal building, opening for business on April 1, 1891.
During its prime, the Custom House heard thousands of cases ranging from rumrunners to ship salvaging claims. Just seven years after the building opened, it would host its most historic event. Following the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana harbor on February 15, 1898, a Court of Inquiry was held to determine the cause of the explosion. The Court convened in the U.S. Courtroom located on the second floor of the building. As decades passed, the Custom House saw a decrease in use. In the 1930s, all administrative offices relocated to new facilities. The U.S. Navy moved its personnel into the building, converting it into office space. They turned the large, gracious rooms into small, functional offices and enclosed the wrap-around porch to create additional workspace.
After three decades of continuous use, the Custom House was abandoned in 1974. Sitting derelict for several years, the Trust for Public Land purchased the Custom House in 1991, subsequently transferring the property to the State of Florida the following year. The Trust contracted with the Key West Art & Historical Society to manage the property, seizing the opportunity to save one of the island’s most significant historical structures while also turning it into Key West’s historic and artistic nucleus. Restoration of the building began in the early 1990s and after 9 years, close to $9 million and much community support, the Society’s monumental effort to restore the Custom House culminated with its grand opening in 1999.
Even with the initial restoration efforts of the 1990s, Custom House preservation efforts are on-going! You can help support these efforts through a tax-deductible contribution.
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