Keys Homes
Sunday, November 24, 2013
A living museum

By BARBARA BOWERS Special to the Citizen

From the exotic fruit garden to the vintage rattan furniture in the library, the 1.6 acre West Martello Tower on Atlantic Boulevard--home to the Key West Garden Club--oozes with outdoor and indoor charm.

Plants and brick archways, indoor-dining room and outdoor kitchen; the splendid combination of architectural and natural design has conspired to create this ocean side fortress-cum-garden. At this very moment, the scent of ylang-ylang flowers (the primary ingredient in Chanel No. 5) fills the air. Eloise Pratt points out four Roseate Spoonbills winging above the "Peace Garden" on the hill where she's working and some members of the Floral Design Group are shifting arrangements in the display room to reflect the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday.

It's a busy place, especially on Monday mornings, when dozens of the 280 members congregate for housekeeping chores.

In the spacious library, I meet with President Robin Robinson.

"Monroe County owns West Martello Tower, but the Garden Club has been maintaining the fort and the grounds since 1952," said Robinson. "We're officially celebrating our 80th anniversary on February 19, 2014 because the present day club spun off from the one started by the Key West Women's Club in 1934."

Of course, the fort preceded the gardeners' efforts, and of course, it has shifted in purpose, as well as structural detail. Built between 1862 and '64, it is a nationally registered historic place; its six interior rooms are intact, with remarkable slate floors, three fireplaces, and thick brick walls. Massive iron lamps hang from the vaulted ceilings in the library, the display room and the dining room, which are connected in a semi-circle via wide Roman arches that actually begin outside the small foyer, where visitors enter.

"The entrance arcade is a favorite for wedding photos," said Robinson. "Among the 6000 visitors last year, 80 weddings took place," some outdoors, some in the Birdcage, which of the six rooms is the southernmost, attached to the dining room.

This is a transitional indoor/outdoor room, with an open-air wooden lattice that extends from the original brick vaulted ceiling. The Birdcage latticework was built by Eugene Otto, of Robert-the-doll fame, with Dade County pine salvaged from the Jefferson Hotel that burned down in 1957.

Although there is an indoor kitchen, events are catered, unless a BBQ is in order for say, the annual plant sale. Then cooking goes outdoors to the garden's kiosk kitchen, located near the "prim and proper" butterfly garden.

Like any grand estate, the lush garden boasts room-like spaces for communing with nature: a giant brick patio accessed from the foyer and the Birdcage; the orchid arbor attached to the old citadel which features an antique Spanish tile "rug," the propagation room or plant nursery, the gazebo overlooking the ocean and more.

Maintenance is carefully orchestrated by department chairs, such as Hazel Hans, whose focus is on the buildings, or Donna Froelich, who oversees orchids. Rosi Ware heads up overall plant care, which today gets a selected tree trimming by club members James Shephard and Eric Elloie.

What's more, today the propagation chairs, Kitty Somerville and Debbie Crowley, have arranged a surprise guest in Jason Lopez, the Living Collection manager at world-renown Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Miami.

"Jason has sort of adopted us--for three years, he's been dropping by to advise about native plant care," said Somerville, during her introduction of Lopez at the impromptu meeting in another of the fort's impressive buildings, the Living Museum. Here, in a shed-roof structure built out from an earthen berm that in the fort's heyday acted as the ammunition storage units, club members assemble for meetings, and store garden gear in what is fondly referred to as "the dungeons"; three windowless rooms boasting massive, original wood doors and iron hardware.

The Living Museum is about to undergo a complete renovation courtesy of a $175,000 TDC grant: "Architect Bert Bender will do the redesign, which includes new electric, which really means we'll be able to do a power-point presentation and turn on the AC at the same time," laughed Robinson.

Recently, the Florida Forestry Department granted the Garden Club more than $20,000 "to promote native trees." A new metal fence from the Monroe County landlord encircles the property, and in 2010 the entire 1.6 acres became a Certified Wildlife Habitat.

The kudos go on and on, just like the never-ending garden and building maintenance, just like the Garden Club members' dedication that guarantees "we're open free to the public almost every day, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m." Robinson said, "even on Thanksgiving Day."

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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