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A guide to the historic homes of the Conch Republic
One of the more charming aspects of Key West is the city's obvious pride in its historic houses and museums. The irony of it is that they don't really go back that far -- the "oldest house" dates to 1829 -- probably because of the cobbled-together early architecture on the relatively remote island and the numerous hurricanes that have made hash of it.
Nonetheless, there are some interesting sites with more than a little history:
Ernest Hemingway House and Museum. 907 Whitehead St. Admission: $10. Easily the most famous site in the city. The celebrated author lived here in the 1930s and wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls when he wasn't off to wars, deep-sea fishing or drinking downtown. Today, the Spanish colonial house and tropical gardens are home to more than 60 descendants of Hemingway's six-toed cats. The instructive tour offers many anecdotes and insights.
Audubon House and Tropical Gardens. 205 Whitehead St. $9. The famous wildlife illustrator John James Audubon stayed here in 1832 while painting in the Florida Keys. Now, the home of harbor pilot and wrecker Capt. John Geiger shows off the family's Chippendale furniture and some of Audubon's elaborate early engravings, all with an audio tour. The exotic gardens are spectacular.
Wrecker's Museum/Oldest House. 322 Duval St. $5. Made from what may have been fragments of wrecked ships, this house is believed to have been built by ships' carpenters in 1829 -- and that may be why it has lasted so long. It's furnished with antiques, ship models and maps. A separate cookhouse offers a peek into an early kitchen.
Little White House Museum. 111 Front St. $10. Rarely has a presidential museum been so unprepossessing. The retreat of Presidents Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, the simple stucco building has been restored to its 1948 era. Truman looms large over the 30-minute guided tour, which offers views of dining and living rooms, even bedrooms and porches in the surprisingly human-scale residence.
Key West Shipwreck Historeum. 1 Whitehead St (Mallory Square). $9. A reproduction of the warehouse that originally stood on this site, this attraction uses actors to re-create the lucrative "wrecking" trade -- that is, salvaging goods from ships that crashed on the dangerous reef nearby -- which brought Key West most of its early wealth. Included are some artifacts from the Isaac Allerton, which sank in 1845. On top, a 65-foot observation deck offers views of the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico.
Heritage House Museum. 410 Caroline St. $5, self-guided; $7, guided. Iconic poet Robert Frost spent his winters here in the 1940s, in the cottage behind this house belonging to socialite Jessie Porter. She played hostess to a pantheon of celebrities from Gloria Swanson to Tennessee Williams, and this simply decorated house reflects her elegant tastes.
The Curry Mansion Inn. 511 Caroline St. $5. This elegant mansion sits on the site of the 1855 homestead of Florida's first millionaire, William Curry. But the mansion actually dates to the turn of the 20th century. Today, it's an antique-laden bed-and-breakfast that's also open to the public for self-guided tours.