By BARBARA BOWERS Special to The Citizen
In 1987, Bill Huckle, who was then-owner of the independent newspaper Solares Hill, assigned Richard Watherwax to photograph writer John Hersey in his cottage on Windsor Lane.
"Back then it was a well-known writers' compound, and I remember thinking it would be a nice place to live," Watherwax said. "Patience paid off."
Although the compound at 713-727 Windsor Lane is still known for the 1970s writers who gathered there -- some like Hersey, poet laureate Richard Wilbur, author Ralph Ellison lived there -- a well-known Key West photographer moved right into the center of the 14-structure compound six weeks ago.
With rambling brick pathways and mature landscaping, the "not just for writers' compound" retains the mystique of Old Key West, and the charm of Conch houses that range in architectural style from cottages to two-story single family homes to the two-family unit Watherwax lives in.
"It's an oasis in Old Town," he said. "If I threw a rock, it would hit the roof of the house on Baker's Lane that I lived in for 25 years."
When poet Kirby Congdon sold that particular Baker's Lane property two years ago, Watherwax downsized his four-room living space to two rooms, and surrendered his darkroom and photo studio to ancient history: These days, the hub of Watherwax's Windsor Lane household is computers and cameras, scanners and printers.
Although his old-door desk, supported by filing cabinets in the kitchen-living-dining room, is a contrast to the high-tech gear sprawled across it, somehow it suits the compound and Watherwax's 400 square feet of living space.
Divided equally between bedroom and living area, the wall space with kitchen was recently upgraded to accommodate a full-size refrigerator. The half refrigerator beneath the countertop had to go -- couldn't make enough ice -- but the Mamie Eisenhower pink-tiled bathroom and Jalousie windows are unwavering testaments to a decorative past worth keeping.
Worth keeping, too, are Watherwax photographs, the decorative art of choice on his side of the single-story duplex. All are originals, framed and hanging on every wall, but the artist's move to condense living space did not include downsizing the photo treasure trove.
"I keep a big unit at A-C Storage on Staples," he admitted. "I have negatives that date back to 1951."
Watherwax swears his new digs are bigger than the storage unit, nevertheless, the photographer enjoys the benefit of low-tech window-air conditioning, while his photos and negatives respond to the cool of central AC: Sometimes the past just demands that kind of respect.
To this end, some of Richard Watherwax's photographs are on exhibit through May 2 at Fleming Street Gallery. Entitled "From My Archives," the joint show with artist Lenny Addorisio, features shots taken in Watherwax's early years, but more relative to the 28 years he has lived and worked in Key West are the local personalities -- photos of political types, artists and writers, females and felines.
Watherwax's unique sense of humor runs through many of these photos, which include his household pets, Willoughby I through IV; each doted on one at a time. Willoughby II, for instance, is the oversized feline pinup in "Fat Cat Capsizing." While just playing around with his fatty cat in the 1980s, Watherwax's photos of her turned into an international best-selling poster.
Not to be outdone by IIs celebrity, Willoughby III ran for Key West Mayor in 1989. This not-so-fat cat collected 37 write-in votes, thereby contributing to Capt. Tony Tarracino's 35-vote win that year.
So you get the picture; Watherwax doesn't just take photos, he stages them, laughs with them, breathes them, lives them. So much so, Willoughby IV vies pound-for-pound with Willo I through III for the photog's affection, and creative photo sessions.
"Initially, she wasn't happy with the move," Watherwax said. "Cats hate change, but most of my furniture is the same, and I knew I had to be patient with her--she finally settled in comfortably with the wall-to-wall carpet."
Life is good on Windsor Lane, particularly soothing in the photographer's cottage, where a Sunday morning radio ad for The Victory Garden enriches classic hits from the1920s and '30s, as well as the compound's calm.
We encounter no one on a stroll along the wide and rambling brick walkways, around the lush garden and centrally located swimming pool.
After coffee by the pool, we return to Watherwax's cottage and Willoughby IV, who leaps quickly off the old-door desk: No doubt, clicking off her computer connection with the silent-film star, and 1920s cultural icon, Felix the Cat.
Watherwax is working up the patience to teach her how to use Skype.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Homes listed for sale may not be considered.