Florida Keys News
Saturday, April 5, 2014
Continuing Key West history, family style

Key West history continued to unfold recently at the Audubon House on Whitehead Street, where three generations of the Geiger family gathered at the historic home built by their ancestor, Capt. John Geiger, between 1846 and 1849.

They were joined by three generations of Wolfsons, the family that bought and preserved the house in 1958, opening it to the public as a museum and launching Key West's historic preservation movement.

"Capt. Geiger was my great-great grandfather," said Richard Augustus de Aguero, standing on the same porch from which the famed harbor pilot and wrecker once peered through a looking glass for ships wrecked on the treacherous reef.

Aguero explained, for the umpteenth time, that the name Audubon House -- referring to the ornithologist and wildlife painter John James Audubon -- is one of Key West history's great misnomers.

"Audubon never set foot in the house," Aguero said. "He may have sat and painted birds from the porch, but he never stayed here, and there's no record of a connection between Capt. John Geiger and Audubon. Now, finally, the story and exhibits are accurate and are more about Geiger than Audubon."

Correcting history is no easy task, and representatives of the Mitchell Wolfson Foundation, which is still run by the Wolfson family, have spent years paintstakingly researching the home at 205 Whitehead St., and the large family that once filled the house and gardens.

When Capt. Geiger died in 1886, his house remained in the family until 1958, when it had fallen into disrepair and was slated for demolition.

Enter Col. Mitchell Wolfson, who once played in Key West with de Aguero's father, Capt. Geiger's great grandson.

When the Geiger home was threatened by demolition, Wolfson bought the property and began the arduous task of preserving the past.

"The colonel and Francis were our grandparents and we've continued the foundation and preservation efforts," Louis Wolfson said from the same porch on Whitehead Street. "We've tried to bring the story back to the Geiger family, and 10 years of research started in 2004 with our archivist."

Wolfson explained that every item now displayed in the Geiger home is authentic and gives a true glimpse into Key West life in the 1800s.

"We had to find documentation and prove that everything here was true and accurate," Wolfson said. "Our archivist found bills of sale for items."

And items that wouldn't have been available for sale in Key West at that time often were part of the cargo and subsequent salvage bounty from the ill-fated ships on the Key West reef.

The unofficial reunion of the family that built the home with the family that saved the home was an unplanned surprise last weekend for museum officials at the Audubon House, who welcomed everyone. Happily surprised museum visitors recognized de Aguero, who is featured in an educational video about the Geiger home and family that is part of the tour.

"They kept walking out of the house and doing a double take," de Aguero said, enjoying his role in correcting the history of his great-great grandfather's home.

mmiles@keysnews.com

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