Key Westers Debate How To Build New In Old Town

Jan 26, 2016

  Key West is famous for its collection of old wooden houses, mostly dating to the 19th century. The district known as Old Town is on the National Register of Historic Places.

  But occasionally a new building goes up in the old neighborhoods. Some recent new buildings, and proposed new buildings, have generated a debate about whether new construction in the historic district should blend in with the older buildings or be clearly separate.

  Building permits in the historic district, including paint colors, are reviewed by the city's Historic Architecture Review Commission. That's where neighbors made their feelings known about the proposal for 616 Eaton St.

"It looks like a cross between a shopping center and an aircraft carrier," Eric Detwiler, who lives in the same block, told the commission. "It's ugly."

His neighbor Dawn Szot agreed.

"We have the Starship Enterprise landing itself in our backyards," she said. "Not only am I afraid for us, but this sets a precedent. If it gets passed, that means these starships can land in other parts of old, historic Key West. And that's frightening."

The review commission received 16 letters about the proposed building — all opposed to the design. Despite that, the proposal was approved by a 5-1 vote. That approval is now being challenged in court.

But the fight over the Eaton Street building has led to a larger movement called Keep Old Town Old. That group's goal is to stop outwardly modernist designs and require that new buildings appear more in concert with historic structures.

This proposed structure at 616 Eaton St. helped create a movement to promote traditional architecture in the historic district.
Credit William Horn, Architect

"I refer to it as the Sesame Street test," says Dana Day, whose property borders the Eaton Street project. "Remember that thing they did on Sesame Street, 'one of these things is not like the others; one of these things just doesn't belong?' If a 6-year-old could tell that your house does not belong it's probably too dramatically different."

Day and her husband once owned the property where the new building is planned. It backs up to their home, which they bought and spent three years restoring. They built a pool house on part of the lot and put the rest on the market. It's a big lot,  so Day says she fully expected someone to build there.

"Somebody else is entitled to their little piece of paradise," she says.

But she was shocked when she saw the proposal.

"It's ultra modern. It's got butterfly roofs instead of gables. It's got vast expanses of green glass instead of windows like on everybody else's house," she says. "I can imagine it would be fabulous on the side of a mountain in Aspen or on a waterfront lot where you had amazing views."

This modern home in Old Town is used as an example by both sides in the debate. Some say it doesn't belong in the historic district; others say it shows how to make it obvious that new construction is new.
Credit Nancy Klingener / WLRN

But she says new construction in a historic district should be sympathetic to its surroundings. The fight over Eaton Street and several other new structures in Old Town have exposed a philosophical divide in how to manage new construction in a historic district that is not a museum but a living community, with homes and businesses.

Day and other members of Keep Old Town Old want the new buildings to blend in. Others, like artist and real estate broker Theo Glorie,  say the new construction should stand out, to make clear that it's not historic.

Glorie was on the architectural review commission that approved the Eaton Street project. He has since left the board.

"If they mimic that Conch house, you really take the value away from the real historic structures that are in that neighborhood, which means you damage your historic district," Glorie says.

He and Day even point to the same house as the perfect example for their argument. It's a concrete house that was built on a street lined with wooden cottages.

"If they would have planted right in the middle a neo-Conch house — because that's what I call them, a fake Conch house — that would take all the value away from those beautiful little Conch houses on each side of the cement structure," Glorie says.

For Day, that concrete house has no place in the historic district. She dismisses the idea that new construction should be obviously different from the historic buildings surrounding it.

"A drunk from Sloppy Joe's doesn't need to be able to tell this is not original construction," she says. "If you have a modicum of interest and knowledge, yeah, you can look at it and say,  'Hey, that house is new,  but it incorporates elements of the neighborhood.' "

The Keep Old Town Old group, started last summer, has more than 1,000 followers on Facebook. Day says she would like the group to become a resource for the city and for residents who are interested in how to live in and build in a historic district.

The city is already responding to the unrest by revising the guidelines that govern new building in the historic district. That process started in December and is ongoing.