A landmark building that is a cornerstone of Key West's working waterfront is getting a face-lift, and city officials say they are doing all they can to keep the structurally necessary changes from interfering with the long-standing character of the property.
The Schooner Wharf Bar and restaurant, from whose tables diners gaze at the masts of Key West's tall ships, bobbing fishing boats and flashy pleasure craft, needed a roof replacement.
So for now, passengers of the excursion boats and fishing vessels are seeing plywood and construction materials at the foot of William Street, where the building fronts the Key West Bight's Harbor Walk on one side and Lazy Way Lane on the other.
The owners of the business lease the building from the city for $22,000 per month. Architects and others involved with the project say it will retain the special character of the area, while ensuring integrity to the property.
"Reconstruction is of the old building that was existing, because of the tie-beam," said city property manager Marilyn Wilbarger. "There was a crack that went around the building and it needed to be taken down."
The cost for the refurbishing and addition of an outbuilding on the Lazy Way side will run about $736,000, Wilbarger said.
"It is a standalone project that's been on the books for a long time, for several years, and finally we are able to get it done," said Wilbarger.
The face-lift for Schooner Wharf comes at a time when the entire Key West Bight area is undergoing change. A brewery and restaurant is slated for construction at the site of the old Waterfront Market, just across William Street from the Schooner Wharf property.
A 96-room hotel has been approved for the intersection of Lazy Way and William Street, to be built by developer Pritam Singh on the site of the failed Harbor House condominium project.
There are reservations from neighbors about some of the changes. Bob Goldman, an attorney who lives near the bight, filed suit last week on behalf of himself and a group of residents seeking to block the hotel. The brewery also raised concerns about noise from a planned rooftop bar area, with many locals saying they would have preferred a grocery store.
The community evinces a strong sense of involvement with the picturesque waterfront area, which is appreciated and understood by Schooner Wharf owner Evalena Worthington, who has run her business there for 26 years.
"When we started Schooner Wharf Bar the bight was still filled with shrimp boats and few people dared to venture into the neighborhood after dark," Worthington recalls. "When shrimping declined in the mid-1980s we created Key West Seaport Inc., which owns Schooner Wharf Bar, to take over a large part of the former Singleton Seafood property and create a historic seaport district with a focus on classic tall ships and the maritime history of the island of Key West. We were successful in attracting the largest fleet of historic schooners on the East Coast by 1990."
Where the Conch Republic Seafood Co. restaurant sits was a marine fuel business and boatbuilding shop. There were trailers occupied by Singleton employees.
The bar, Worthington said, was an important part of our overall vision for the bight.
The city purchased the Singleton property and others along Key West Bight, although Worthington wanted to buy the Schooner Wharf piece. There was a guarantee of a long-term lease for the bight businesses.
The voters, Worthington said, were promised "that the funky character of the bight would be preserved "and it would never be Fort Lauderdale-ized."
Wilbarger said she is comfortable that the plan being followed by architect Bert Bender is in keeping with the historic character of the area and the building.
"He tried to design a structure that would feel like it belonged here," she said. "This was a very industrial working waterfront and the new structure he is building is in keeping with that. It's not gingerbread, it's not a little Conch house."
Bender could not be reached Monday. But Haven Burkee, an associate at the Bender firm, said much of the outside of the building is being preserved.
"Our big concern was with the existing building, the concrete structure, to retain as much of that as possible," Burkee said. "We are going to retain exterior walls, we will be retaining the floor."
Among the problems related to the roof issues were leaks, one reason why it is being replaced.
Wilbarger said the project, although separate from other improvements the Bight is seeing, fits in with attempts to strengthen "the general ambience" of the seaport.
"Two years ago we initiated a common area enhancement plan process for the Historic Seaport," Wilbarger explained. "We have improved pedestrian access, signage and way-finding, and added new lighting."
A completion date for the project has not yet been determined.