One of the great pleasures of visiting Key West is admiring the hundreds of historic homes that have been lovingly preserved and restored.
But few visitors get a peek inside those private homes.
Four weekends a year, however, the owners of some of Key West’s most interesting houses open their doors to visitors in order to raise money for historic preservation on the island.
For 59 years, the non-profit Old Island Restoration Foundation (OIRF) has hosted the Key West Home Tours. It is one of the oldest home tours in the country.
For a $35 ticket ($40 at the door), visitors can tour five houses over the course of two days. There are four weekends of home tours and each one features different houses reflecting the varied tastes and originality of their owners. Some showcase homes have been scrupulously restored. Others have been ingeniously renovated. Many have art collections and antiques. This year, as a bonus, there is an additional sixth building to tour each weekend, a historic bed and breakfast or hotel.
The first home tour was organized in 1960. It cost $2 per person and featured eight homes you could tour in three hours on a single Saturday afternoon. It was a very different era for Key West, according to Jean Shannon, vice president of the OIRF.
“The Old Island Restoration Foundation was organized by handful of people who were really disappointed with what was happening to the island,” she said. “It was happening all over the United States, and it was called progress. Beautiful historic structures were being torn down.
“The organizers of the foundation realized they were losing their history,” she said. “If they didn’t do something, it would all be gone, replaced by gas stations and car dealerships.”
Shannon said the home tours were more than a fund-raiser: “We were opening people’s eyes to the fact that you could buy one of these homes and you could fix it up and you could save it.”
Today, while few need to be convinced that Key West homes should be saved, education is still a major part of the tours, Shannon said.
“Once the 20 homes are selected, we research each home. We dig into the historic records and learn the background of each house. We want to give the visitor an idea of the history of island.”
It’s not all about educating visitors, however. It’s also about entertaining them.
“You’re walking through somebody’s home that has all sort of interesting features,” she said. Volunteers are trained to point out details about the antiques, art works and architecture.
Sue Huffaker, a 21-year Key West resident who has attended more Key West Home Tours than she can recall, says that’s her favorite part of the tours – you’re not just seeing houses, in a way you’re also meeting the people who live there.
“It’s a form of voyeurism, I guess,” she said, laughing. “You get to see who people are. You see what’s important to them.
“Everybody puts out their most precious things and you get an insight into the person. This person is really family oriented with pictures everywhere. Or this person is into cooking.”
Her favorite thing, however, is to see the choice of art.
“You won’t see Cezanne or Picassos; many people have work by local artists in their homes and some of it is extraordinary,” she said. “I have found some of my favorite artists through the Key West Home Tours.”
The people who agree to open their houses for the home tours are motivated by helping to raise funds for historic preservation, Shannon said
The money raised by the home tours is used to make grants to local home owners and non-profits to fix up their buildings in the historic district. OIRF grants have helped preserve the Old City Hall, the Custom House, the Martello forts, the Key West Lighthouse, the Women’s Club, several churches, and more. Recently, grants helped fund repairs to historic buildings after Hurricane Irma damaged many.
The foundation also has preserved and maintains the Oldest House Museum and Gardens, 322 Duval St., which is open to the public to visit and tour for free.
Recruiting home owners to participate in the tour is an annual challenge. Volunteers who know about an interesting home will reach out to individuals and ask them to be part of the tour. Some years, celebrities such as children’s author Judy Blume have opened their homes.
This year, Shannon is excited about having on the March tour the home of Jean Carper, best-selling author of books including “Food: Your Miracle Medicine” and “Jean Carper’s Complete Healthy Cookbook.” Her home and outdoor space is filled with priceless art and sculptures and a dance floor that lights up.
Among Shannon’s favorite homes on the tour, however, are the ones whose secrets are hidden behind gates and landscaping.
“In Key West, you never know what’s behind that gate that you walk by every day,” she said.
The 2018-19 Key West Home Tours
Dec. 28 and 29, 2018; 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.
Jan. 18 and 19, 2019; 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. January tours includes optional Conch Tour Train Tickets for an extra $10.
Feb. 15 and 16, 2019; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
March 15 and 16, 2019; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The December tours include many homes decorated for the holidays. The January tours include the option of paying an additional $10 for a ticket that takes you on the Conch Tour Train as tour transportation.
Tickets for the tour are $35 and available online or in person at the Oldest House Museum or on the day of the tour at each of the five homes. Tickets sold on the day of the tour are $40. Online tickets can be purchased here: https://oirf.org/pay/ticketpay
Homes may be seen in any order and viewings may be split over two days. Since parking is challenging in Key West, it is best to bicycle or to combine walking with the free Duval Loop Bus. Here’s information and the route of the bus.
Resources for planning a Florida Keys vacation:
- Mile marker guide with dozens of stops to help make the most of your drive south.
- Florida Keys wildlife: Places to see animals
- Tiki bars: Soak up the Keys atmosphere
- 12 great kayak outings in the Keys
- Top 10 pit stops on Overseas Highway
- Free beaches in the Florida Keys
Special places to explore in Key West:
- Free things to do in Key West
- Key West on budget: Accommodations, restaurants
- Florida Rambler guide to the Lower Keys
- Eight Key West restaurants for authentic local flavor
- Key West Butterfly Conservatory: A tranquil stop
- Audubon House, a lovely refuge in Key West
- Historic Key West Seaport
- Historic Key West Cemetery is full of stories
- Fort Zachary Taylor
- Hogfish Grill: Where Key West locals go for fresh fish
- Key West chickens