Every February, you can feel the love for preservation when Old Island Restoration Foundation presents its Key West Home Tours. The next installment in the 61st year for the annual fundraiser is scheduled for Friday and Saturday, Feb. 12-13, just in time to ready for Valentines’ loving feelings.
The organization of the tours is different this year, as guests for the previous two limited-edition tours have noted. In keeping with the CDC pandemic guidelines, OIRF is putting safety first. Each day from 1 to 5 p.m. the number of people touring is limited to 10 people in groups of eight. Careful distancing from others and face coverings are required to participate.
Also new this year, the 160 reserved tickets for the tours may be purchased only online at keywesthometours.com or at the Oldest House Museum gift store, 322 Duval St. In fact, the Oldest House is pivotal to the 2021 tours in more ways than one: Guests must pick up tickets there at 12:45 p.m. or 2:45 p.m. on the day of the tour; the house is home to OIRF, and as the oldest house in the historic district, it is on the February tour.
Constructed in 1829, the house boasts nearly 16,000 square feet of garden space, where guests will sanitize hands, mask up and socially distance within their groups. The docent-guided tour of Emeline’s garden and the original four ground-floor rooms of the home addresses architecture, culture and the fascinating history of the Watlington Family.
Be sure to ask about the ladies of the house, especially Mrs. Emeline Watlington, who most unusually for the mid-1800s was a female property owner. Equally significant, she had seven daughters, at one time all ladies of the house at 322 Duval St. Emeline was the wife of Capt. Francis Watlington, whose history — a sea captain, a harbor master and a Florida State senator until he joined the Confederate navy in 1863 — is much better known than Emeline’s.
If you like the Oldest House, you’ll love 618 Free School Lane. Although architecturally much different, this house, too, has an historic pedigree in that it was formerly Nancy’s Secret Garden. Still hidden in the heart of Old Town, the new three-bedroom, four-bathroom home was designed and built in 2017 around Nancy’s original 750-square-foot house.
Today, all 3,000 square feet is crisp, modern and slightly awe inspiring. Marble floors. Imported bathroom fixtures. The open-concept living area brings outdoor light and exquisite tropical landscaping right into the 14-foot foyer and right up to the 12-foot ceilings.
And then, “the sunken pool is unique. It taps into the island’s freshwater aquifer, and it’s a project that probably will never be undertaken again,” said Kate Miano, homeowner. “It’s a great party house” — and filled with good vibes even when no one is there.
Those vibes and that loving feeling carry on to 810 Eisenhower Drive. Here, an equally magnificent home embraces a sprawling tropical garden and pool. Built in 1929 and lovingly renovated in 2011, the two-story home retains much of its Dade County pine interior. Contemporary amenities, of course, highlight a gourmet kitchen that flows into the formal dining-and-living room.
But from the get-go, this antique home was designed for outdoor living: wrap-around porches evoke the island’s laid-back lifestyle, and this large property’s detached cottage connects the loggia overlooking the pool for great entertaining spaces.
At 1024 Grinnell a few blocks away, Key West’s Firehouse No.3 is a great space for history buffs. It formerly housed Sunnysouth Engine Co. and Tiger House Co. No. 3 back in the day when horse-drawn steamers and hose carriages ruled firefighting techniques.
Built in 1907, it is one of the oldest fire stations in Florida. Enduring hurricanes, firemen on strike and script pay during the Great Depression, this iconic building served Key West until the 1960s. Then, under the leadership of Capt. Alex Vega, president of Old Firehouse Preservation, community stewardship kicked in, and from 2000 to 2008 the property was renovated. Can you feel the love?
If yes, get your tickets to tour all four properties at 322 Duval St. They are $40 in advance at keywesthometours.com, or $45 day of the event.