While its fun to experience the energy of Duval and Mallory Square in Key West, sometimes you just need a tranquil moment. Fortunately, the answer lies around the corner - the Audubon House & Tropical Gardens. Located at the intersection of Whitehead Street and Greene Street, the Audubon House is one of Key West's hidden treasures. In the front corner towers a grand tree - the famous Geiger tree which is featured in John James Audubon's painting of the white-crowned pigeon. Not only is the Audubon House one of Florida's finest examples of 19th century architecture, its Key West botanical gardens are equally impressive. Not to mention the 32 original Audubon works on exhibit throughout the house. This house has something for everyone - maritime history buffs, architect and antique lovers, bird admirers, art enthusiasts, gardeners and shoppers. That should cover it! Regardless of whether you are in Key West for 1 day or many, the Audubon House is an amazing museum that can be covered quickly or over several hours, lingering in its art gallery and shaded tropical gardens.
Tickets are cleverly sold in the gift shop/art gallery so there is no excuse for passing up this opportunity for great finds (more on that below). From there you proceed out the back and to the exquisite home built by Captain John H. Geiger between 1846-1849. For the time period, this is a large home which makes sense when you learn that Captain Geiger and his wife Lucretia had 12 children.
We are greeted on the first floor by Denison, who quickly impresses us with his extensive knowledge about this grand 3 story mansion. Before we head off on our own to explore the property, Denison provides us with an enthusiastic overview of the home's history, architecture and its family. Captain Geiger was a wealthy harbor pilot and master wrecker. At that time, shipwrecks were a common occurrence in the waters around Key West, helping make Key West one of the wealthiest cities in the United States. The home was intended to showcase his wealth with quality workmanship throughout - exit doors are made of cypress, the staircase is mahogany and the floors are made from Dade County Pine. Furnishings in the home are representative of furniture found in wealthy homes in the mid-1800s.
Bedrooms are on the second floor, along with the Hammock Room. During the warm, humid summers, it was common to sleep on hammocks on the outside porch. I much prefer today's air-conditioning! Looking around at the carefully restored rooms and furnishings, it's amazing to think how close this historic home came to being destroyed.
The Geiger family owned the home from the time it was built until the last descendant, Capt. Willie Smith passed away in 1956. By this time, Key West along with the Geiger family, had fallen on hard times and the house itself was in bad shape. The house was sold - slated for demolition with plans for a gas station to be built on this prime piece of real estate.
As fate would have it, the famous Geiger tree with its ties to John James Audubon, influenced a local family, the Wolfson's to intervene and buy the home through the Mitchell Wolfson Family Foundation, a nonprofit educational institution. Two years were spent renovating the home. In 1960, the Audubon House opened its doors to the public. Seeing the home's transformation from an eye-sore to a local treasure helped spark the restoration movement of many homes in Key West's Historic Old Town District.
Don't miss the 3rd floor with its wonderful collection of Audubon works, including Audubon's Folio of Birds of America. While there are 32 original Audubon works throughout the house, the 22 birds that Audubon painted in the Florida Keys are all located in the gallery on the 3rd floor. All 22 of the paintings are first edition octavos with another 5 Havells in the gallery. In addition to the original works, there is an Artist proof and a Bien edition which was the first time chromolithography was attempted in the U.S.
We spend plenty of time taking in the fine botanical gardens spread out on an acre of meandering paths. It features an 1850's era outdoor cook house which served as the home's kitchen and next to it is a medicinal/herb garden typical of the 1850's. Key West is one of the few truly frost-free cities in the mainland U.S. and is a gardener's delight with its colorful tropical plants. Over 200 orchid plants with their bright, delicate blooms pop up from the garden and trees. Orchid plants like to hide in tree trunks and branches so I wander around looking up, hoping I don't bump into any of the other visitors! Majestic old trees provide plenty of shade and I stop along the paths to read the many labels identifying the varieties of trees and plants. I'm amazed at the size of the sapodilla trees. We have friends in the Lower Keys who have several sapodilla trees but much smaller than these towering specimens. I still haven't acquired a taste for the raw fruit (reminds me of peanut butter sandpaper) although it does bake into the most delicious bread, like banana bread, only better. Did you know that ancient Mayans chewed on chicle (the white sapodilla sap) like gum?
We stop to gaze into the water pond with its delicate lily pads and brightly colored koi. I'm told that this is a favorite hang-out of herons. The pond is a memorial to John Malcolm Brinnin, a Key West poet, author and friend of Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. In 1955, Brinnin was awarded the Poetry Society of America's gold medal for distinguished service to poetry. He retired to Key West where he was known as the dean of Key West's literati. Brinnin passed away at his home in Key West on June 25, 1998.
John James Audubon traveled through Florida in 1831-1832. In Key West, he had a letter of introduction to Dr. Benjamin Strobel who owned the property next door. Audubon admired the adjacent gardens containing the Geiger tree and many other native and imported tropical plants. The orange flowers and branch of the Geiger tree appear in Audubon's painting of the white-crowned pigeon and it is believed that plants from this garden appear in Audubon's other paintings from this visit. Audubon left Key West having sighted and drawn 22 new birds for his “Birds of America” folio. Although the Geigers bought the property and built the house after Audubon's visit, the Geiger tree in its beautiful tropical garden and the Geiger House are an homage to John James Audubon and his contributions to art and to ornithology.
Locals tip - This is one amazing gift store with lots of local artists creations and presents in all price ranges. I pride myself on knowing all the great places to buy that one-of-a-kind Key West gift but just discovered this wonderful gift shop and art gallery. Web site isn't kidding when it says that if “offers an eclectic and unique array of collectibles, home design and giftware. Antique Chinese panels and porcelains share space with modern metal bird sculptures from Zimbabwe made from recycled oil drums. Tibetan art blends in with the hand made jewelry of American artists.” In addition, there are gorgeous Christmas ornaments, books, candles, stationary, coffee mugs and all sorts of cool things. My husband looks most concerned and quickly pries me away from the jewelry! I will be making a solo trip back soon to take a closer look - my gift-giving is now greatly simplified.
Did you know that the Audubon House Gallery is among the most experienced and reputable Audubon art dealers in the world? If you are looking to acquire an original antique Audubon offering, a limited edition of Audubon's work, or antique nautical charts, botanical prints, maritime history prints or maps of the West Indies and Caribbean, give them a call or better yet, stop by their art gallery.
The Audubon House & Tropical Gardens
205 Whitehead St., Key West, FL 33040
Open daily for tours from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., 7 days a week. Last tour starts at 4:15 p.m. Art Gallery and Gift Shop remain open until 5 p.m.
To check out more of Key West's history and museums, use your Vacation Pass to save money while visiting these top Key West attractions - Harry S. Truman Little White House, Key West Aquarium, Key West Art & Historical Society, Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory, Key West Shipwreck Treasure Museum, and Ripley's Believe It or Not!