Conch Architecture

A Look at Key West Gingerbread

by Karen Hamilton Rager

What do the houses in Key West have in common? The answer is - nothing! Key West is a cornucopia of uniqueness. One of the most distinctive characteristics of the Key West house is their gingerbread designs. This is the wooden millwork encircling the wide porches of the house. Residents often chose the pattern for the gingerbread to reflect their occupation.

Christopher Cox states in A Key West Companion, "It was an unwritten rule that each Key West family had its own gingerbread design, selected either by fancy or to suggest the nature of the family business and it was not to be copied. One discovers in the gingerbread around the island designs such as sailing ships, anchors, pies, and, in one house where bootlegged liquor was sold, whiskey bottles."

The whiskey bottle design adorns a structure at 1117 Duval St., now called 'The Speakeasy Inn.' The house is encircled by a stringcourse of whiskey and wine bottles, as well as the hearts and diamonds seen on poker cards. Not only did the owner manage to reflect his occupation on his house, he also found the gingerbread a rich source of advertisement for his business.

Key West is home to the most diverse and unique type of architecture found in all of the United States. Sources of inspiration for early residents include the Bahamas, New Orleans, and New England. Homes were built by ship's captain's using parts from their ships or parts salvaged from pirate ships that had broken up on the Key West Reef. Many homes were broken down in the Bahamas and shipped over to Key West where they were put back together again.

The gingerbread became popular in Key West after the great fire of 1886. With the invention of the scroll saw, elaborate decorations were added to many of the structures. Most of the patterns for the gingerbread were brought in from outside the island, ordered from England and Cuba. However, there were a few locals who made their living creating millwork for their neighbors.

In the 1880's a local named John Carroll set up shop and turned a nice profit producing gingerbread designs for his neighbors. Lacking a skill saw, Francisco Camellon, a black Cuban, found an interesting way to cut patterns for Key Westers. He used a blindfolded horse to turn his lathe.

While there are supposedly more than 60 different gingerbread designs on the island, the most popular variation of the gingerbread appears to be the fleur de lis, a small flower-like symbol that is also the Boy Scouts of America's official emblem.

The Wedding Cake House (also called 'The Pink House,' 'The Gingerbread House' or the 'Benjamin Baker House') at 615 Elizabeth St. is an example of gingerbread at its finest. Built in 1866 by Benjamin Baker as a wedding present for his daughter the house is adorned with an elegant lace like gingerbread and a wide railing bedecked with the fleur de lis design. Placed against a pale pink background, the house epitomizes the charm of the gingerbread.

A common choice of gingerbread stringcourse is the ship wheel. At the Cuban Consul House on 1001 Eaton St., there is a beautiful display of ship wheels. This house is frequently pointed out to tourists riding the Conch Tour Train.

Not all gingerbread is easy to spot. Hidden under waving palms and drooping bouganvillas, the most unique choices of gingerbread lay waiting to be discovered. By cruising the back alleys of old Key West there are to be found some truly inspired millwork. By paying close attention to the architecture, elaborate and unusual designs can be spotted..

At 1020 Southard St., gingerbread men dance across the front porch, the owners having take to heart the gingerbread name. A jaunt down Frances St. reveals orchid cornices, a stain glassed orchid arrangement on the front door completing the effect.

On tiny, laid back alleys' apples, palm trees, parrots, and even violins peek out from under the beautiful Key West fauna. Pineapples, the traditional Southern sign of welcome, abound on many Key West homes. At 414 Frances the pineapples are in such abundance that the average person strolling down the lane can not help but be enticed to gawk. Pineapples grace the porches and balconies and are even cut into the white picket fence in front of the house.

Many of the old houses are in the process of being restored. The guidelines for restoring houses in Key West differ, depending on many factors. Burt Bender, a Key West architect specializing in renovations and restorations, states that the restoration guidelines depend on where the house is located and whether or not the house is "nationally recognized as a significant (historic) structure."

If a person is looking to renovate a house with his own designs it would be advisable to think twice about purchasing a house in Old Town Key West. The guidelines are in place to keep the structures as close as possible to the original design.

Some residents want to add gingerbread to their homes or remove the existing millwork, but according to Cara Armstrong of the Historic Architectural Review Commission (HARC), you "can't make existing houses into different styles" if the home is of historical significance.

By enforcing the guidelines laid forth by HARC the city is able to suspend time - maintaining the charm and ambiance of an old American town. With the exception of the New England States, it would be difficult to find such an exceptional and entertaining form of architecture. Anyone visiting this picturesque little town should make a point of noticing the work that has been done to maintain the charming character of Key West.

K. Y. Hamilton, BA, MA - Copyright 2006

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