East and West Martello towers are the last remaining monuments of the Civil War in Key West that are still completely accessible by the general public, and the only two outpost-style forts of their era that are still fully intact, experts say.
The forts are not only monuments to the past, but have become major cultural centers for Key West. The East Martello Fort is now a major repository of art, and the West Martello Tower is a showcase for native flora and fauna thanks to the Key West Garden Club. Since the 1950s, the forts have been host to countless exhibits by such acclaimed Keys artists as Mario Sanchez, Stanley Papio and Jack Baron.
However, decades of neglect and theft of bricks had left the towers in disrepair. That decline was reversed over the past five years, as the forts have undergone a major face-lift. Brick by brick, Monroe County workers embarked on a series of projects to renovate the aging forts, and more work is planned.
At each of the forts, crews have replaced large sections of bricks that were stolen or had disintegrated from hurricanes or tropical storms. The masons used bricks and mortar that were of the same consistency as the originals, and "period correct" for the mid-1800s, when the forts were built, said Monroe County Project Management Director Jerry Barnett.
"The brickwork has been the focus, because without them we have no forts," said Barnett, who has degrees in both anthropology and archeology.
The county has spent $520,000 on brickwork between 2010 and 2012. If Barnett can receive the funding from the county Tourist Development Council (TDC), which has paid for 90 percent of the work at the towers, he anticipates another $300,000 to $400,000 in brickwork in the next year. All total, the TDC has spent $758,000 on the two towers since 2010.
"The TDC has been the biggest supporter," Barnett said. "We could not have done it without their help."
At the East Martello fort, which abuts Key West International Airport, workers have replaced the iron spiral staircase inside the fort's citadel, erected a new outside steel staircase and constructed a new door to the citadel, built to withstand hurricane-force winds. Workers also built a new Americans with Disabilities Act compliant entrance at the West Martello fort.
Until 1950, the East Martello Tower was essentially a "ruin," Barnett said. However, the fort has become "epicenter for folk art in the Keys," with more than 80 Stanley Papio sculptures, 20 Mario Sanchez carvings and 10 Jack Baron pieces, said Michael Gieda, spokesman for the Key West Art & Historical Society, which oversees operation of West Martello.
"We have a lot of ideas for the future. Our dream is to completely restore it and make it a place to come and visit," Barnett said of West Martello Tower.
The two towers were designed after the nearly-impregnable watchtower at Mortella Point in Corsica, and those along the Irish and British coasts. The towers are some of the most well-preserved martello fortifications in North America.
Construction began gradually during the Mexican-American War, from 1846 to 1848, and was hastened at the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. The East Martello Tower's outer bulwark and 8-foot-thick citadel walls were a testament to military engineering, and at the time of its construction could have withstood the heaviest bombardment, Gieda said. By the end of the war, development of newer rifled artillery made brick and mortar fortifications obsolete.