Tucked downtown amid the cruise ship chaos, trolley tours and sunburned souvenir shoppers exists a bastion of history that shares the secrets of one of the earliest eras in this ever-changing island city.
Sprawled over 2 acres in the 200 block of Whitehead Street, the Audubon House offers a glimpse of real life in Key West as it was lived in the 1830s through the 1860s.
Despite its name, the home-turned-museum never belonged to the renowned naturalist and ornithologist John James Audubon. And despite local lore, Audubon didn't stay there during his landmark visit to Key West in 1832, when he painted never-before-seen species of birds and plants.
"The house was built by Capt. John Geiger, a wealthy wrecker, between 1846 and 1849," said Mary O'Connor, the museum's property manager and operations director. "Capt. Geiger, though, lived on the property as a rental prior to building his home."
In 1932, during Audubon's visit, Key West was being crippled by a yellow fever outbreak, and history shows that Audubon likely stayed aboard the ship that brought him, O'Connor said.
But there is evidence that he was acquainted with the man who owned a neighboring property and Audubon likely explored the gardens and foliage that now are part of the Audubon House Museum while he was here, she added.
Museum officials have been working with a historical researcher to correct the inaccurate local legends, and re-create Geiger's home to show a slice of life in Key West in the 1800s.
"We're trying to get rid of the folklore and make it real," O'Connor said while leading the way to the museum's newest historical exhibit.
A small, wooden outdoor cookhouse recently was built on the property and is now open to touring visitors. The cookhouse is an accurate re-creation of the ones that existed on most Key West properties during that era.
"There would have been a constant fire going in here," O'Connor said, gesturing to the stone hearth.
The cookhouse exhibit is also filled with historically accurate artifacts that would have been found in a Key West kitchen between 1830 and 1860. A hand-crank butter churn sits by the window, while centuries-old textiles are draped over an antique wash basin containing a washboard. A chopping block is in one corner, along with the wicks and wax that would have been used to make the copious amounts of candles that would have been needed to illuminate the home at night.
"They only cooked out here; there is no kitchen inside Capt. Geiger's house," O'Connor pointed out, adding that the household servants, and perhaps some slaves, would have carried the meals from the outdoor kitchen into the dining room, where antique place settings and furniture are arranged to show how the family lived, dined and entertained.
"With this newest exhibit, we're really trying to emphasize the meals and diet of that time," she said, adding that the exhibit will include re-creations of food staples such as turtle soup, fish and conch. "We'll show the raw materials outside in the cookhouse, and then the finished products will be on display inside the house in the dining room."
The entire project should be finished by next month, but the exhibit has been open to the public for more than a month and was funded in part by the Monroe County Tourist Development Council.
The Audubon House Museum is owned and operated by the Wolfson Family Foundation, a nonprofit organization started by Mitchell Wolfson, who bought the property in 1958 when it was slated for demolition. The property represents Key West's first example of historic preservation, which ultimately allowed for the downtown historic district to boast the largest collection of historic wooden structures in the nation.
The foundation is in the process of securing some of the Geiger family's original possessions, and already has on display Capt. John Geiger's eyeglasses, as well as his wife's jewelry and dishes, O'Connor said.
A corseted ball gown from the 1840s hangs in an upstairs dressing room, as if awaiting an evening dinner party in the dining room below.
The museum also gives plenty of attention to its namesake Audubon, and has 31 of his original wildlife paintings on display in Geiger's home, as well as text panels explaining his work and discoveries. The property expertly combines the work of Audubon with the reality of life in the 1800s. The adjacent gift store also carries reproductions and Audubon prints.
The Audubon House will offer free admission to locals and members of the military through the month of December.
For more information, visit www.audubonhouse.com or call 305-294-2116.