Keys Homes
Sunday, March 31, 2013
Attending to history

By BARBARA BOWERS Special to The Citizen

Larry Myers says that 1117 was the third house built on Elgin Lane, somewhere between 1891 and 1893.

"It shows up on the 1893 Sanborn map, and by 1898 the map indicates that the house was physically turned in place, apparently to accommodate a new cistern," said Myers, a history aficionado who often taps into library historian Tom Hambright's reservoir of knowledge about Key West and Florida history.

Recent history, though, registers another move in place at 1117 Elgin Lane.

"The house's short pilings were resting on sand, and when the 2005 flood from Hurricane Wilma hit, it floated and twisted off its pilings, in turn creating an early fiscal cliff for us," he said.

Myers' wife, Brooke, who bought the property in 2000 with her husband, elaborated: "Because we had to replace 50 percent of the structure, we had to rebuild to FEMA requirements, which meant raising it in compliance with the Historic Architectural Review Commission's guidelines."

The house went up by 3 feet, but you barely notice that it's raised: The dense vegetation, the white picket fence, the gravelly edge of pavement -- there are no sidewalks along this two-block-long lane -- are pretty much true to bygone eras, begetting romantic time warps in which change doesn't much show on the exterior, but inside, many of these antique houses are made new again during renovations.

"Guillermo Orozco, the architect and house designer we hired, used turnbuckles to straighten out the basic bones," said Larry. "We gutted the building, saved the original Dade County pine staircase and found more old pine beneath the drywalls."

Today, the reuse of natural wood complements more than 1,700 square feet of space, which includes some walls and ceilings; new hardwood floors on the first floor and old painted ones on the second floor.

Although the building was rebuilt in its former footprint, it was restructured from a two-family unit into a single family residence. The covered porches -- one recessed beneath the front-gable roof and one with a protruding gable roof on the side -- are the only suggestions that what is now one was once two.

Three rooms and a full bath make up the ground-level floor plan, which is split by a central staircase original to the house. Formal entry is into the living room on one side of the stairs that features a small sitting room at its base; the kitchen is on the other side, and gives way to a breakfast nook and another sitting room.

"The big sitting room could be a formal dining room or a bedroom," said Brooke of the versatility and privacy that double-pocket doors contribute to the late-1800s Conch house charm, which melts into art deco décor: "Think 1939 World's Fair," said Brooke.

For instance, a cabinet in the living room is actually from that fair, designed for "the dining room of the future." Rattan furniture and 1930s lamp fixtures, like the beach babes that adorn a lampshade in the sitting room, are remnants of old South Florida.

This ambiance is further tweaked by the kitchen's wooden cabinets, new but curved to mimic an original Bakelite radio. New too, are the turquoise Northstar reproduction appliances that pick up some of the color in vintage Fiesta Ware atop the cabinets.

The deep farm sink, the drop-leaf table in the breakfast nook and especially the collection of pre-Castro Cuban swizzle sticks -- framed and hung between porcelain lamp fixtures in the breakfast nook -- accentuate the '30s-to-'50s decorative feel.

But in this household, history goes deeper than the 20th century, well into the 18th and 19th-century connection between Key West and Cuba. Historical items appear throughout the two-bed/two-bath house in the likes of old photos of Key West and Havana hanging in the master suite upstairs. Framed documents, such as bolitos from 1844 and an 1868 passport (issued in Key West by the Spanish Council once located here) that permits a visit to Matanzas, Cuba, underscore the relationship of the two countries.

The depth of the Myers' interest in history is well preserved with Cuban and Key West artifacts inside. Outside, the house that boasts a prestigious preservation star awarded for careful attention to architectural history, looks pretty much the same as it did in the late 1800s.

"We love the historical district, support all of HARC's efforts to preserve these old houses and we believe that stricter is better," said Larry.

Barbara Bowers is a Key West writer and host of a radio talk show about owning and maintaining property in the Florida Keys. To suggest a home to be featured in the Keys Homes section, send an email to barbara@bbowers.com. Homes listed for sale may not be considered.

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