I traveled to Key West, Florida by ship and fell in love with the old, wooden houses there. The legend is that many were furnished from Poseidon-spurned treasures, salvaged from shipwrecks off its coral reef. Some were built from the timbers of sunken ships, fostering superstitions and ghostly tales. The wooden houses of Key West are usually smartly painted — reminiscent of sky colors, the colors of the sea, rooster-fanned sunrises, and Margarita-laced sunsets. Some of the houses are not painted at all. These old, gray weathered houses resemble the autumn faces of seasoned fishermen – cracked, calloused, and colored by excessive sun and salt air. The unpainted houses beckon back to the days when houses were not taxed here until they were finished; in Key West, a house was not finished until it was painted.
Wooden shutters shadow tall windows of the old houses and conceal their inhabitants from the glare of the sun. They contribute to Key West’s “live and let live” mystique by concealing their inhabitants from the prying stares of less easy-going tourists. In these old wooden houses, front doors and back doors are often aligned to invite the cooling breezes of welcome trade winds. The blades of lazy ceiling fans cast faint shadows as they circle above like searching gulls, momentarily refreshing where trade winds don’t reach.
Wrap-around porches and water-colored ceilings above windows and doors are familiar sights in Key West
Many old houses in Key West have front or wrap-around porches. The original ceilings of most outdoor porches were painted to resemble the color of water; that tradition still remains. It was believed that evil spirits would not cross water and by submerging windows and doors beneath water colored overhangs, evil spirits would become confused and avoid entering the homes of people living there.
No house in Key West is more beautiful to me than the island house that belonged once to Earnest Hemingway, shown in the featured photograph. For me, visiting Hemingway’s house was the highlight of my stay there. The house was built in 1851, and it was Hemingway’s residence during the 1930s. Just a short walk from his favorite bar Sloppy Joe’s, today it’s a historical landmark and open to the paying public. Many of Hemingway’s possessions are on display there as if he will return, including many personal photographs.
The house is unexpected in that it has retained its personal nature and it does not seem like other museums where all that once was is there in memory only. Like the bridges connecting Key West to the mainland, Hemingway’s house bridges the past to the present. On the afternoon I visited it, all the doors to Hemingway’s house were open to breezes and people wandered at their own pace with tour guides or alone, as a guest might in a home of someone significant. The tropical gardens had shaded benches for people to rest and refresh themselves. Outside the doors were bowls of dry cat food and fresh water for the descendants of Hemingway’s cats who still reside there – about 50 now, or so I was told.
Modern six-toed descendant of Hemingway’s original cats
Occasionally an outdoor house cat would wander in or out of the house, and in one room I noticed a cat tail protruding from beneath a piece of furniture. As I entered the main living area of the house, there was an antique couch dating to the 17th century within a roped-off seating area. On the couch was a large sign, “Please do not touch or sit on.” Sleeping next to the sign was a curled shabby cat, unimpressed by the human rules and the people who read them. It was one of the 6-toed descendants of Hemingway’s original cats, and it appeared as much of a fixture to the old house as any of Hemingway’s paintings, memorabilia, or furnishings remaining there.
I have returned to Key West since my original visit. With any luck, I will continue to do so as long as I can travel.
Photos taken by Jazzdat
Feature Photo: Hemingway’s Home, Key West
Originally published on January 25, 2015, Revised May 13, 2017