Old Custom House – Key West Florida


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Old Custom House – Key West Florida

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The Old Custom House in Key West

The Old Custom House in Key West, Florida, also known as the Key West Custom House, is a grand and historically significant building that stands as a testament to the island’s rich cultural and economic past. Constructed between 1889 and 1891, this impressive structure was designed by architect William Kerr as a federal building to house the island’s customs office, postal service, and district courts. Located at 281 Front Street, the Custom House is an architectural marvel and a key piece of Key West’s heritage.

The building itself is a striking example of Richardsonian Romanesque architecture, characterized by its robust and intricate design. Made from red brick and featuring grand arches, broad gables, and a steeply pitched roof, the Custom House is both imposing and elegant. Its design reflects the importance of Key West as a bustling port and commercial hub during the late 19th century, when the island was one of the richest cities in the United States due to its strategic location and thriving industries.

The Custom House played a pivotal role in the economic development of Key West. During its peak, the building was the center of customs operations, regulating the import and export of goods in and out of the island. This was particularly significant given Key West’s position as a key transit point for ships traveling between the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Caribbean. The building also housed the post office, which was crucial for communication, and the district courts, which underscored its importance in the administration of justice and governance.

In the 1930s, the building fell into disrepair as federal operations moved to other facilities. However, in the 1990s, a major restoration project was undertaken by the Key West Art & Historical Society. This extensive renovation restored the Custom House to its former glory, preserving its architectural features and adapting it for use as a museum and cultural center. Today, the Custom House serves as the headquarters of the Key West Art & Historical Society and is home to a museum that showcases the island’s rich history and vibrant culture.

Visitors to the Custom House Museum can explore a variety of exhibits that detail Key West’s past, from its early days as a Spanish outpost to its boom periods fueled by shipwreck salvage, cigar manufacturing, and the sponge trade. The museum also features works of art, historical artifacts, and displays related to famous residents like Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams. One of the highlights is the extensive collection of artifacts and memorabilia from the wreck of the Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de Atocha, discovered by treasure hunter Mel Fisher.

The Custom House is not just a museum but a cultural landmark that hosts various events, educational programs, and community activities. Its grand architecture and historical significance make it a popular venue for weddings, receptions, and other special occasions. The building’s beautifully landscaped grounds and proximity to the vibrant Mallory Square add to its appeal, making it a focal point for both locals and tourists.

In essence, the Old Customs House in Key West is a vital link to the island’s storied past. It stands as a symbol of the economic and cultural development that has shaped Key West, offering a fascinating glimpse into the history that continues to influence the island today. Whether you are a history buff, an architecture enthusiast, or a curious traveler, the Custom House provides a rich and immersive experience that captures the essence of Key West’s unique heritage.

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