The slow transition of a historic building like Key West's Oldest House has its own charm, similar to the dignity of natural aging. Of course, the building's extended life -- thought to be 180 or so years -- actually encourages the occasional face-lift, which frequently reduces the character of most old girls.
The most recent alteration to the house at 332 Duval St. is an interior redo, a makeover that goes backward in time to an 1850s American version of Victorian décor.
"We think the house, probably built in 1829, was moved here from its original location on Whitehead Street after the massively destructive hurricane in 1846," said Cork Tarplee, administrator for the Oldest House Museum. "This was one of only eight structures left standing.
"It makes sense that Capt. Francis Watlington, who would have had to do some damage control to his house because of the hurricane, chose that time to relocate his expanding family," he said. "We're recreating the interior to reflect that point in time."
Tarplee says it's almost impossible to find documents that nail down early time frames for the four-room building move, or for its second-story addition. Somewhat easier to account for are the alterations that added two small rooms to the original back porch, and some of the many dormers. The museum's board of directors decided to tag these major changes to structural forensics and the births of seven daughters, some born before 1850, some after.
"Audrey Chase, one of our board members, is a retired antiques dealer and the driving force behind the interior redesign," said board President Tony Minore. "We've done nothing structurally, but Audrey developed a two-page plan with a wish list for furniture and household items from the 1850s."
For several years now, Chase has been sorting through the museum's collection and looking for period pieces to buy, such as the 1840-ish dining room table. This antique features a rectangular table top with rounded edges and a wide border, centered gate legs and a dozen reproduction chairs. An old brass chandelier, which at some time in its past was converted from oil to electric, was installed in the dining room three years ago.
This year, though, marks the real beginning of the interior redesign with the dining room's newly painted rose colored walls and teal wood trim, the living room's tan-and-teal coloring, and a bedroom's gray-blue and tan paint job.
"Audrey found photos of intense colors like these inside other houses from the 1850s, and the makeover with different colors in each room has inspired other board members to get involved in the hunt for suitable antiques," said Minore.
Not all of the antiques are newly acquired. Some of the furnishings were originally in the Watlington household: the dining room's sideboard, for instance, and the rocker and game table in the living room. Two of the four Victorian portraits of unknown women were donated by Watlington family heirs, although several oil paintings of old schooners by W.W. Cowell were acquired over time.
"It's probable that paintings like Cowell's would have hung in a boat captain's house to reflect his profession and the mid-1800s maritime culture of the city," said Tarplee. "The only item that isn't closely related to the mid-1800s is the bed in the front bedroom."
This bed is in the East Lake style of antiques, circa 1890-95. It belonged to Earl Johnson, the last Watlington family member to live in the house before the property was purchased by Rosemary Austin in 1974 then renovated by Old Island Restoration Foundation in 1975.
"If Audrey gets her way that bed will go away," laughed Tarplee. "But it gets more comments from museum visitors than any other piece."
The recently remodeled first floor of the house-museum is open to the public free of charge. Two rooms are set up as bedrooms, one decorated with kids in mind -- a child's crib and chair, a wicker stroller and an antique four-poster bed furnish the space.
"It's hard to know how the rooms were originally used because the back bedroom, as well as the dining room, has doors to the porches," said Tarplee. "One of them might have been the captain's office."
These days, the captain's office is situated in a room off the back porch. Tarplee says the porch's reconfiguration was probably made in 1870, when the Watlingtons built a room on either side to create more sleeping space.
Pieces of information are gleaned from old photos and the occasional visitor to the museum, like the niece of Lily Watlington, who died in 1936.
"Her niece was 14 when she came to stay with Lily, and she said Aunt Lily still used the old cookhouse out back," Minore said.
The cookhouse is still there, among the few still standing in Key West. It was probably built in 1829 then moved to Duval Street with the house in the mid-1800s. It's a baseline for the slow, architectural transformation of the Oldest House, where a side-gable roof's irregular lines -- the "landlubber's tilt" -- is visible above the back porch's original shed roof. These varying rooflines and dormers and additions don't exactly capture the dignity of natural aging, but rather, they demonstrate the changing needs of a family as much as the character of wrinkles manifested over a 180-year lifetime.
Barbara Bowers is a Key West writer. To suggest a home to be featured in the Keys Homes section, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Homes listed for sale may not be considered.