Florida Keys News
Friday, April 16, 2010
Heritage House museum closes
House features heirlooms, Robert Frost Cottage

Some could argue the start of modern civilization in Key West started on Caroline Street, between Duval and Whitehead streets, where a well in front of the Heritage House was one of the island's first sources of drinking water.

After the island was settled, the grande dame of Key West preservation, Miss Jessie Porter, would host such literary and entertainment greats as Tennessee Williams, Ernest Hemingway and actress Gloria Swanson in the Heritage House. Starting in 1945, poet Robert Frost spent 16 consecutive winters in the cottage behind the house, which now bears his name and is the site of an annual poetry competition and seminar.

Celebrities and writers have long stopped calling on the home, but thousands of visitors a year have kept coming to learn about the history of the home and Key West.

On Saturday, the Heritage House will close, as Peter Brawn is buying the home for $2 million plus $60,000 to purchase some of the home's historic contents. Brawn, who recently has purchased several historic properties in Old Town, is scheduled to close on the property on May 14, Porter family members said. The home will open for free tours today and Saturday, and an estate sale on Saturday.

Capt. George Carey built the original two-story Heritage House in 1834 and Jessie Porter saved it from destruction in 1934. The Heritage House was her home until her death in 1979.

Porter was instrumental in saving old homes in Key West and bought many wooden homes doomed for destruction. She restored the homes and inspired others to do the same, her surviving family members said.

Porter was the force behind the creation of the Old Island Restoration Foundation, which was born in her back garden in 1960.

The Porters have held onto the home and maintained it as a living museum for all things Key West.

"The story of Key West is told through our family and the story of our family is the story of Key West," said Porter Poirier, grandson of Jessie Porter.

The home, which was built by ship makers, has survived many a hurricane in the past 176 years. But the privately maintained museum just proved too costly for the Porter family, which has had to battle termites and the elements. Annual maintenance, repairs and other associated costs have added up to about $50,000 annually in recent years, the family said.

"It's bittersweet sadness mixed with relief," said Suzanne Campbell, Porter's granddaughter. "What's sad is this is the last family-owned and -operated museum."


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