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Touring Ernest Hemingway's Fabled Former Key West Home

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All photos by Iain Steel.

Over the Seven Mile Bridge with the sea on both sides, past the fish shacks, dive shops, RV parks and roadside aquariums, at the southernmost end of U.S. 1, is the peculiar former home of American Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ernest Hemingway.

When Hemingway lived in Key West, from 1931 to 1939, it was a dislocated island in the Florida Straits, 30 miles from the rest of Florida and 90 miles from Havana, obscure and run-down. Countless Hemingway biographers attribute the author's prodigious writing in those years—including A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Death in the Afternoon, The Green Hills of Africa, To Have and Have Not and Islands in the Stream—to Key West and, more specifically, to the giant old house on Whitehead Street. Hemingway's indelible mark on the 1850s mansion seems as clear and masculine as his prose.

The house at 907 Whitehead Street, a block from Key West's infamous Duval Street, towers over its neighbors much as it has throughout the city's history, from pre-Civil War piracy to the antebellum cigar trade to the days of the U.S. Navy and now over-the-top, American-style tourism.

The two-story, 3,000-square-foot mansion, which became a museum in 1971, is set on a landscaped bank but is partially obscured at street level by a six-foot wall made from Baltimore Brick that Hemingway had built, to give him privacy when the first days of his fame coincided with waves of tourists hitting Key West. The property is further shielded from curious passersby with dense clusters of palm trees, orchids and red mangroves.

The brittle, off-white walls are formed of "limestone rubble" quarried on the site, covered in stucco and scored by hand to look like coursed dressed ashlar, a kind of finely cut stone bound with ironwork, according to a 1966 survey by the Old Island Restoration Foundation. Wide wooden slatted shutters painted yellow bookend the façade's half-moon windows. Wide porches on both the first and second floors are held up by rather uninviting cast iron pillars.

"The design is totally unlike anything else on the island," says Diane E. Silvia, director of the Historic Florida Keys Foundation. "We haven't found that anything else like it existed in the Keys, before or since it was built."

The house was built in 1851 for Asa Tift, a wealthy ship wrecker (salvager of shipwrecks, a swift business in the pre-Civil War southeastern United States) and looks not unlike something fished out of the sea.  A cistern for collecting rainwater remains perched on the top of the 3,000-square-foot home like a main mast's crow's nest.

In fact, 907 Whitehead Street sits at 16 feet above sea level, making it the second-highest place in all of the lower Keys, and it was very possibly a prehistoric burial ground, according to Dave Gonzalez, a spokesman for the Hemingway Home & Museum. "It inspires you or it can break you," Gonzalez says of the site.

The basement, just nine feet above sea level, is one of only two in Key West and is likely where Tift housed his slaves, according to the museum. It has allegedly never flooded, owing to the building's primary material, the limestone excavated from layers of skeletal matter, the permeable ancient coral that the Florida Keys are made of.

The architect may have been William Kerr, who built several buildings of "native" stone, says the Old Island Restoration Foundation survey. Before the Civil War, Tift owned Key West's main wharf, partly explaining why the house is so gargantuan compared to contemporary architecture. A 1967 Historic American Buildings Survey describes it as "West Indian Creole." Zoning maps from the period and later photographs confirm the house has always been greatly out of proportion with the rest of the Key West vernacular, which includes a mix of Classical Revival and gingerbread-house Queen's Anne decorative architecture. The house's obtuseness was only amplified by Hemingway and Pfeiffer.

After Tift lost his entire family to yellow fever within two years of building the house, he lived there until his death in 1889. The house was boarded up and derelict until Hemingway and Pfeiffer moved in, more than four decades later.

They paid $8,000 for the property, which basically covered back taxes owed to the city of Key West. "When they first moved in, they put up gauzy material to keep the ceiling from falling on them," Gonzalez says. Eventually they furnished it with his favored Spanish 17th-century furniture and her French chandeliers and Italian marble fireplaces, laying hand-painted tiles from the Royal Palace in Havana to create walkways and a back yard patio.

Passing through the main entrance's screen door, a child on a recent tour points in all directions. She counts 11…15…21 cats even before stepping inside. Indoors, cats perch on the big-game hunter-writer's ornamental ceramic elephants, sprawl across the parlor's satin sofas, nap on the white Chenille bedspread in the master bedroom, where Hemingway had two full-size beds strapped together and bound to a headboard appropriated from a Siglo de Oro Spanish monastery.

Hemingway's famous cats, so ubiquitous they feel like furniture, are also in the carriage house studio that, of all the rooms on the property, most exudes the author, with its sturdy round wooden table and one heavy, uncomfortable-looking chair to match, and the green Army metal case engraved with the initials "E.H." that was said to carry the unfinished manuscript of A Farewell to Arms from Paris.

Modern additions include the brick wall around the property; a second-floor, wrought-iron wraparound porch; a catwalk from said porch to Hemingway's studio; a sixty-foot-long swimming pool and pool house; and a urinal dislodged from the author's favorite bar, Sloppy Joe's, converted into a water trough for the cats. A wooden porch Hem is pictured on in the '30s was gobbled up by termites and replaced with a concrete-block patio, and the catwalk Hemingway built from the upstairs porch to his writing studio is, alas, also gone.

Though the museum makes the occasional repair, the work is mostly upkeep. The house's foundation has weathered the hurricanes and the wildlife remarkably well. Again, museum staff point to the house's main building material. The shutters are original Dade County pine, a now-extinct variety, as are the floors, which are made of Honduran pine.

When Hemingway left to take up with the foreign correspondent Martha Gelhorn in Cuba, Pauline Pfeiffer continued to live in the house, holding lavish parties around the pool, which was the first and is still the largest in Key West, until her death in 1951. For 10 years after, the huge estate was unoccupied, its demanding décor and verdant yard tended to by a sole caretaker.

After Hemingway committed suicide in Ketchum, Idaho, in 1961, his and Pfeiffer's sons inherited the house and sold it quickly. "'No fond memories there' was their response," Gonzalez says. A local bought the house that year for roughly $80,000, but creatures both animal and human continued to scale the wall or slither beneath the dense foliage and inhabit a property that had been empty for a decade. In 1964, the owner retreated to the pool house, as Pfeiffer herself had eventually done. The main house was added to the national register of historic places in 1968 and, three years later, became a museum and cat refuge. It remains the largest residential property in Key West.
· Hemingway Home and Museum [official]