Key West is full of beautiful houses, gardens and views but one of the prettiest places of all is the Audubon House, also known as the Geiger House, and its gardens.
Located between Duval Street and Mallory Square – and just a block from each – it’s in the heart of Old Town. In fact, you could argue Old Town wouldn’t exist without the Audubon House, because saving this house spurred the whole historic restoration movement that kept the “old” in Old Town.
Like the best spots in Key West, the Audubon House is full of fascinating stories with larger than life characters.
It starts with sea caption and wrecker Captain John Geiger, who built the house in 1830 for his family, which included nine children. Wrecking (salvaging goods from shipwrecked boats) was the source of great wealth and Key West’s biggest business.
Geiger’s heirs lived in the house for 120 years! The grand three-story home fell into disrepair and by 1958, its owners were planning to demolish it so a gas station could be built.
Enter another hero: Mitchell Wolfson Sr., a Key West native and founder of a successful chain of movie theaters and Miami’s first TV station, WTVJ. Wolfson’s foundation bought and restored the house, opening it as a museum in 1960. The foundation purchased magnificent antiques, created the spectacular gardens that turn the nearly one-acre property into a tropical paradise and filled the house with 28 first-edition Audubon works.
Fortunately, no modern updating had spoiled the old house. There’s a reason for that: By the 20th century, the heirs were poor and, as our tour guide pointed out, “Poor people don’t remodel.” In fact, at the time of the purchase in 1958, the house didn’t have indoor plumbing.
The third larger-than-life character in this story is, of course, John James Audubon, the great painter and cataloguer of American birds, creator of Birds of America. (If you don’t know Audubon’s story, you might find his Wikipedia profile surprising, starting with his bastard beginnings on a sugar plantation in what is now Haiti.)
Audubon visited Key West in 1832 and discovered 18 new species of birds there. He spent months with the Geiger family, sometimes painting on their grounds. Audubon’s painting of the white-crowned pigeon features the Geiger tree still found in the front yard of the house. In fact, it was Audubon who named that orange-flowering tree after the Geiger family.
When you tour the house, you start with an interesting introductory talk and then you are on your own to wander and admire its light-filled and airy rooms, a testament to cross-ventilation. You can sit on rocking chairs on the second-floor balcony and overlook the garden or Whitehead Street and admire the Audubon paintings, but it doesn’t take long to see the inside of the house. Essentially, there’s a central staircase with one room on each side of it on each of three floors.
For many, the best part of the place is outdoors in the gardens that surround the house. Orchids and bromeliads burst from every spot. A koi pond is beautifully embellished with sculptures of wading birds.
For some visitors, the question is: For a $12 admission ($11 with this $1 off coupon) and with all the things to do in Key West, is Audubon House worth your time and money?
I loved the place, and fans of Audubon and historic houses and gardens probably will too. Folks on TripAdvisor acknowledge it’s a short tour and a small-ish house. Those who were enthused talked about lingering and really taking the place in.
I also would encourage visitors to ask lots of questions of the well-informed guide. The tour was short, but the guide had extensive knowledge, which he was happy to share.
Audubon House & Tropical Gardens
205 Whitehead Street, Key West, FL 33040
Admission: $12 for adults; $7.50 students, $5 for children 6 to 12. Here’s a $1 off coupon.
(The house is free to Key West residents and members of the US Military in December 2012.)
Note: Some visitors find the stairs to the upper floors to be steep.
More things to do in Key West
- Print out this mile marker guide to enhance your road trip to the Florida Keys.
- Eight Key West restaurants for authentic local flavor
- Free things to do in Key West
- Historic Key West Cemetery
- Best beaches in the Florida Keys
- All about those Key West chickens
- Find peace at Key West Butterfly Conservatory
- Hogfish Bar & Grill: Where locals go for fresh seafood in Key West
- Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park: Hidden gem in Key West
- Florida Rambler guide to the Lower Keys
- Feed the tarpon at Robbie’s Marina
- Tiki bars: Soak up Keys atmosphere
- Biking or walking the Old Seven Mile Bridge
- Visit historic Pigeon Key in Marathon
- Kayak or canoe to historic Indian Key
- No Name Pub worth finding on Big Pine Key