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Key West Audubon House: Fascinating characters, enchanting spot


The Key West Audubon House is the jewel of Old Town

The 1830 Key West Audubon House/Geiger House, viewed from its back yard.

Key West is full of beautiful houses, gardens and views but one of the prettiest places of all is the Key West 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 Key West 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.

There is almost an acre of gardens surrounding the Key West Audubon House, including a koi pond.

The Key West Audubon House was saved from demolition in 1958 and inspired the historic preservation movement in Key West.

It starts with sea caption and wrecker Captain John Geiger, who built the house in Key West 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 Key West 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.

The Key West Audubon Hhouse displays 28 first-edition Audubon works. This is the painting with the orange Geiger tree, which still stands in front of the house.

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 Key West 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.

Orchid lovers will enjoy the Key West Audubon House’s gardens, which burst with bromeliads and tropic vegetation.

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 Key West Audubon 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.)

Key West Audubon House furnishings are not original but were acquired to match receipts for furniture the Geigers owned.

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 Audubon 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.

The opulence of the china in the Audubon House dining room demonstrates how lucrative the wrecking business was. For awhile, Key West was the richest city in the country.

For many, the best part of the Audubon House is outdoors in the gardens that surround it. 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 the Key West 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.

Key West Audubon House & Tropical Gardens
205 Whitehead Street, Key West, FL 33040
305-294-2116

Admission: $12 for adults; $7.50 students, $5 for children 6 to 12. Here’s a $1 off coupon.

Note: Some visitors find the stairs to the upper floors to be steep.

 

More things to do in Key West

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