You can’t just tear down a house in Key West’s Historic District. Even if it’s in pretty bad shape. That’s why people were so surprised when the city -- which normally enforces the preservation rules -- came up with a list of five houses in Old Town that could be torn down.
One of those houses “looks like it’s sitting on limestone piers which are not anchored on anything , so the building’s sitting here unsecured,” says Ron Wampler, the city’s chief building official.
The house is a little cottage on Whitehead Street, less than two blocks from the Ernest Hemingway Home. Wampler added it to the list earlier this year.
“I had parked a block away and I was on my way to an inspection,” he says, “and I walked by it and did a double take and started walking around it, determining if I should do anything.”
It didn’t take him long to decide he did have to do something.
“I saw some holes in the roof where I knew water was entering it,” he says. “It’s not on much of a foundation. I posted it that day unsafe and not fit for habitation.”
Old Town is famous for its wooden houses. Most of them are from the late 1800s and early 20th Century. In the 1970s, people started fixing them up and the area became a historic district.
They range from the mansions of millionaires to the simple cottages once occupied by the city’s cigar makers. Now even the shabby ones are worth serious money, says Michael Miller, an architect and chairman of the Historic Architecture Review Commission.
“Some of these places, people from other parts of the country who look at them say, these are shanties, these are absolute shacks, what do you want to spend any time on that for?” Miller says.
“And then you look at this house next door that’s this exquisite 19th-Century restoration, and it’s what everyone wants -- and is paying a million dollars for… [but] it was identical to the shack next door.”
Miller says he’s worried the city’s action in cases like this could provide a loophole for property owners who don’t want to spend money on a restoration.
“It’s sort of demolition by neglect,” he says. “Once they’re torn down they’re gone forever, and then whatever goes up would be something new. Could be a trailer, could be a prefabricated house, could be a beautiful new house, could be a pretty ugly house, could be a cheap house. But that part of the history of that neighborhood is gone.”
Nobody’s living in these homes now. But one family was, until very recently, in the house at the corner of Petronia Street and Chapman Lane. The Chapman family built the house more than 100 years ago.
James Chapman and his wife Kim had to move out when the city said it wasn’t safe anymore. James is staying with family nearby and Kim is staying at a women’s shelter across town. They still come every day and hang out in the yard.
“Just [to] try to get our last looks and just remember the days when we had fun and cookouts and stuff here. And raised our children here,” Kim says. “It’s going to be hard.”
The house is in foreclosure. But the Chapmans are hoping to find a way to hold onto it and fix it up.
Many in Key West are watching all five of these homes. They want to see if the houses can return from the brink of demolition to continue as part of Old Town’s housing stock -- and history.