We visit Key West at least once a year, and while the island is small, there are so many things to do and see that we always do something different each time we go. On our visit last fall with friends, we wandered into The Oldest House in Key West, which also happens to be the oldest house in South Florida!
About The Oldest House in Key West Museum and Gardens
Located at 322 Duval Street in Key West, The Oldest House in Key West is a public museum and gardens, and is free to the public from 10 am to 4 pm every day except Sunday and Wednesday. It also has the oldest surviving Cook House in South Florida!
The Oldest House in Key West was built in the style of a New England Bahama House, which is from the Classic Revival style of architecture. Richard Cussans, who built the home, was a ship’s carpenter, and incorporated several maritime features into the design. The house has mortise and tenon joinery, a ship’s hatch in the master bedroom that raises the roof for ventilation. There are also horizontal wall boards which were built with Dade County Pine, which is now extinct!
The gardens in the back yard are important in their own right, being made up of many different types of indigenous plants and fruit trees, including lime and banana trees.
While Richard Cussans is credited with building the Oldest House in Key West, it was oddly built as a one story home in 1829 on Whitehead street and thought to have been moved to 322 Duval in 1836.
The house has survived several fires, of course its fair share of hurricanes – even the occupation of Union troops during the Civil War!
As I mentioned, The Oldest House in Key West also features the oldest Cook House in South Florida. In the 1800s, kitchens were kept separate from the main home due to the frequent occurrence of fires from the oven. As homes were built mainly of wood, a common kitchen fire could quickly spread and bring down an entire house.
The Cook House has what is called a “beehive oven” in the wall, which is believed to be the only beehive oven left intact in South Florida. The only other known beehive oven in the state of Florida lies in the Ximenez-Fatio house in St. Augustine.
While the home was built by Richard Cussans, it is most well known for being the home of Captain Francis Watlington and his family. Captain Francis Watlington was a sea captain engaged in maritime enterprises, but also a Harbor Master and a state legislator before joining the Confederate Navy in 1861. After the end of the Civil War, he returned to Key West, where he died in 1887.
The Oldest House in Key West is most well know for being the Watlington home because they owned the home until 1972, when the last member of the family to live there died. It was purchased in 1974 by Mrs. Robert Austin of Islamorada (a nearby Florida Keys island), who promptly handed the deed over to the Historic Florida Keys Foundation, who hired the Old Island Restoration Foundation to manage a restoration project in 1975.
As the Watlington family lived in the house right up until it was purchased by Mrs. Austin, the furnishings are original, including the Captain’s office on the back porch! It was a pretty amazing experience for this history nerd to be able to read an old captain’s log and see firsthand the tools of the trade of such a long-past era!
Inside the home we found much of the same, original decor and furnishings of the Watlington family.
It was strange to see such a simple, uncluttered home compared to houses we now live in.
The next time you’re down in Key West, I highly recommend that you pay a visit to The Oldest House in Key West! You really can’t beat free for such a cool look back into the history of South Florida!