By BARBARA BOWERS Special to the Citizen
One of just a dozen or so brick buildings in Old Town, the home base for the Key West Woman's Club on Duval Street is the rock next to Hard Rock Café.
Architecturally as solid as the fabric of the community, this nonprofit has been instrumental in weaving since its start-up in 1915; the three-story mansion is undergoing some changes to celebrate the organization's 100-year anniversary in 2015.
At the moment, scaffolds and orange tape announce the porch and balcony facelift, where a hole cut into the left corner of the wrap-around porch's floor reveals the foundation's bulk -- a combination of coral blocks and stacks of brick support the first floor three feet above the lot, which is already raised two feet higher than the street.
A few years after the woman's club bought 319 Duval St. in 1940, the members had installed a retaining wall and iron fence at the property's front-lot line to shore up and contain the landfill. This, too, has been reinforced recently, courtesy of a grant from the Helmerich Foundation.
New and improved shutters are on the way, and in spite of the construction in progress, the historic Hellings House is open free to the public on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays -- this in itself is a recent change.
"On Feb. 3, 2013, the woman's club opened its doors as the Martin Hellings House museum," said the club's president, Roberta Spencer, who noted that the group's 211 members meet there when the museum is closed. "Currently, we have a mix of antiques donated from many of our past and present members, but eventually we'll remodel with furniture appropriate to the period."
The "period" is of Key West's 19th-century golden era -- a time when millionaire families like Eleanor Curry's built the fine old mansions that still line much of Duval and many of its side streets.
"Eleanor married Martin Hellings, the cable manager of the International Ocean Telegraph Company in Key West. Before and during the Spanish American War, he operated an intelligence service for the U.S. government and provided the White House War Room with the latest news from Cuba," said Vicky Shields, a club board member and docent on this particular Thursday. "In other words, he was a spy."
Shields says a $10,000 gift from Curry's parents went into building the house in 1892. Its 10-foot windows and backyard stable, detached kitchen and butler's pantry were de rigueur for this wealthy period, although today the stable that once housed the postmaster's horse is the Red Barn Theatre, and a kitchen addition to the brick house backs up the butler's pantry.
Almost half of the house's 8,558 square feet is dedicated to two apartment rentals on the second floor. The third floor is attic and storage space, and with the exception of the kitchen, five of the six big rooms located on the first floor are open to the public. These rooms feature the elaborate living space the Hellings family enjoyed.
A central hallway divides the main salon from the front parlor where "men retired after dinner parties to smoke cigars and drink brandy," said Robin Robinson, a woman's club member and docent, attired in period dress on this day of steamy July heat -- long-sleeve lace blouse and full-length silk skirt.
Robinson says back in 1941, club members turned the elegant dining room into Key West's first library, and they were the force behind the fundraising effort that opened the Fleming Street library in 1959.
Present-day helping hands are still reaching out to the community, "serving Key West and Monroe County nonprofits with ongoing contributions from fundraising efforts by our members," said Spencer, its president.
But when building maintenance and repairs are added to operating expenses, "we exceed our budget," she said. "The most recent renovations came from $200,000 of private funding."
The woman's club is and always has been effective -- it has raised a lot of money for a lot of special causes. By adding the nonprofit museum status to its list of projects, doors are likely to open to other grant sources.
In the meantime, the club counts on donations from the public and from its generous membership because, well, property owners in Key West understand that upkeep, taxes and insurance on an historic house occasionally puts them somewhere between a rock and a hard place.
Barbara Bowers is a Key West realtor 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Homes listed for sale may not be considered.