By GEORGE FONTANA Special to The Citizen
There's not much to distinguish Key West's best known compound from its neighbors. A white stucco wall separates the ersatz collection of homes from the gaze of curious literary pilgrims eager for a glimpse into the fabled writers' retreat. A simple plaque on the wall identifies the former residence of Pulitzer Prize winner John Hersey. Hersey and company -- Richard Wilbur, John Ciardi and Ralph Ellison -- assembled the collection of run-down shacks and shanties within the Windsor Lane property in 1976. Other literati compounds soon followed, but the Windsor Lane Writers' Compound remains the most iconic.
Today the compound, limited to residents 55 and over, is home to a new generation of creative types who relish the location's privacy and camaraderie. A shared pool has replaced a former bomb shelter/waste site and the early plantings have grown lush and full. And, yes, the simple shacks and shanties have undergone extensive renovations over the past 36 years.
David Bray and his partner Neal Hartman first encountered the compound in 1986 when, during a visit from New York City/Sag Harbor, they stayed with a friend who was a compound resident. Enchanted with Key West, they began a search for their own home in paradise. When they learned a home within the compound was for sale, they acted fast.
"It was an impulse buy," notes Bray. "The house was owned by a Miami dentist who rented it out. It was a wreck."
The classic cigar-maker's cottage, built in 1926, required a good deal of "basic work." The couple commuted between New York and Key West. Between visits, the property was rented on a short-term basis. Usually the tenants were known to the owners -- with one notable exception.
Returning for a stay, Bray and Hartman noticed a black powder on the window sills. Upon questioning, their rental agent disclosed that the recent, and anonymous, tenants had been directly involved in a notorious homicide.
"The black powder was fingerprinting dust," laughs Bray. "Later, we were surprised to see our home in a TV 'True Detective' program."
In 2001, the cottage was "stripped down to its shell," the owners said.
The living room ceiling was opened up creating a sleeping loft on the adjoining half. Windows were closed off, replaced in the living room gable with a triangular configuration of square windows: one window above, three below. The arrangement allowed light to come in, while providing privacy. An octagonal window replaced a full window on the entrance wall. Coral colored floor tiles were installed throughout the house.
The couple moved definitively to Key West in 2006. Wanting more space, they purchased a larger home on Duncan Street while continuing to rent out the compound cottage, albeit to carefully vetted tenants.
Following Hartman's death in October of 2010, Bray decided to move permanently into the compound. Working closely with local architect Matthew Stratton, he undertook a second, more extensive renovation during the winter/spring of 2011.
A stroll through tropical plantings and past the pool leads to Bray's snug front porch. Once inside, the living room opens to the left of the entry. A small office anchors one end of the room. Comfortable seating and an eclectic art collection occupy the remaining space. Two signed posters by noted contemporary artist Ellsworth Kelly, "Chapeaux Mossant" by French poster artist Capiello Lenetto and an assemblage of Cuban cigar labels decorate the walls. Decorating the entry is a folk rendering of the Bray/Hartman Sag Harbor home as well as the sly "Ode to Toulouse Lautrec" by Jim McMullen, which playfully continues the chapeau theme.
A four-poster bed, overhead storage and ensuite bath define the bedroom. Above the bed, double paintings of fighting bantams face off; a configuration repeated on the adjoining wall with Haitian oil renderings of two parrots. A wire sculpture by well-known local artist Susan Rogers produces ever-changing shadows as light moves through the room. The bath boasts a walk-in shower with built-in ledge seat; grey floor tiles, an usually large mirrored medicine cabinet and a raised counter sink. The walls are a light grey color that was selected by Stratton.
The completely rebuilt kitchen offers L-shaped black granite counters backed by stainless steel backsplashes resting on cabinets fashioned from vertical wainscoting. Stainless steel appliances continue the clean look. Over the sink, a whimsical hanging lamp has been fashioned to replicate a colander. Lining the underside of the upper cabinets are LED lighting ribbons. Bray's collection of old ceramic mixing bowls tops the upper cabinets. A small wood dining table provides cozy dining. To complement the stainless steel, Stratton repeated the grey wall coloring used in the bath.
French doors figure prominently in the 591-square-foot property. They open from the kitchen and living room onto the secluded dining deck creating a seamless transition between interior and exterior. French doors also open from the bedroom to an outside shower and wrap-around deck that surrounds the house on three sides. On the dining deck, a pergola covered nook accommodates a custom-made bench providing a quiet conversation area.
"The house," notes Bray, "is ideal for a single person or a compatible couple -- emphasis on compatible."
George Fontana, a free-lance writer and recovering innkeeper, divides his time between Key West and Cape Cod.