June 19, 2017

Tourists walk under the Duval Street awning of Sloppy Joe's Bar. The building was constructed in 1917 at the corner of Duval and Greene streets and has since been occupied by only two tenants.

Tourists walk under the Duval Street awning of Sloppy Joe's Bar. The building was constructed in 1917 at the corner of Duval and Greene streets and has since been occupied by only two tenants.

Every Key West resident can rattle off at least two of those seemingly tainted properties. They’ve housed a revolving door of restaurants, shops and other businesses, but none manage to secure a lasting foothold. If a passing motorist blinks as they go by, they’re likely to miss the newest incarnation or name change.

Upon moving her successful restaurant into one such “doomed” location, a local restaurateur burned sage when she moved into the larger space and let the smoke “cleanse” the building of any residual negativity. So far, so good.

On the other hand, permanence and popularity have never been a problem at 201 Duval St., which has dominated the landscape of lower Duval Street for 100 years now.

The legendary current home of Sloppy Joe’s Bar, 201 Duval St. was constructed in 1917 at the corner of Duval and Greene streets and has since been occupied by only two tenants: Victoria Restaurant was a seafood restaurant from 1917 to 1937, when “Sloppy Joe” Russell and his hard-drinking customers settled in for the long haul.

“Back then, when Joe Russell first took the place over, the back room was only for friends and gambling,” said Sloppy Joe’s Facilities Manager Jerry Henderson, who is familiar with every inch of the old building. “You know the brown, Cuban floor tile? That’s all original. It’s held up amazingly well over the past century.”

And a few years ago, a renovation became an archaeological excavation when Henderson had to dig up part of the bar’s floor.

“I realized that the fill dirt they had used beneath the building when it was being built had come from the charred remains and debris that was left over from the Great Fire of 1886, which almost wiped out all of Old Town,” said Henderson, who built a display cabinet in the rear of the bar to showcase some of the historic bottles, an ancient Chinese rice bowl and other items that were found beneath the bar and analyzed by local archaeologist Diane Sylvia.

“This building really is a landmark in the city,” Henderson said. “It would seem a waste not to acknowledge its 100th anniversary.”

One man who knows more than many about the history of the building is Stan Smith, Jr., whose father, Stan Smith, Sr., owned Sloppy Joe’s from 1960 to 1981, having bought it from Joe Russell’s son, a religious man who disliked alcohol and its effects on people.

“He always leased the bar out to a number of tenants,” Smith said last week. “My dad leased it for a year and then bought it. My dad’s the one who installed the parachute on the ceiling. He also was the first person to sell Sloppy Joe’s T-shirts and merchandise, and initiated the New Year’s Eve celebration. The only advertising my dad ever paid for was a billboard on U.S. 1 near Boca Chica.”

Ernest Hemingway’s wife, Mary, gave Smith a roomful of the author’s memorabilia, some of which still adorns the walls.

The Smith family sold the bar in 1981 and a few years later, it was purchased by the two families who still own the lasting and legendary watering hole, the Snelgroves and Mayer families have been the custodians of 201 Duval St. for nearly 40 years now and they don’t plan on going anywhere anytime soon.

As lasting as the Cuban tile on its floors, Sloppy Joe’s is as much a part of Key West’s history as shrimp boats and shipwreckers. And the legend still lives on.

mmiles@keysnews.com