Conch Houses

Beth Eliot- Island Jane Magazine

Whether you live here or are just visiting Key West, I believe you would agree that the architecture and homes of Key West are a huge part of the draw to this charming tropical island.  The City prides itself on maintaining the character and historical integrity of these lovely homes.  Everywhere you turn you will find tucked away little alley like lanes lined with a vast array of eclectic homes, many built in the nineteenth century in Old Town of Key West.  Old Town is the area which is also considered the historic district of the island of Key West.  It is roughly the western half of the island and where the majority of tourist attractions are located.

In the early 1800’s Key West was primarily populated by New England natives, Cubans, fishermen, wreckers and spongers from the Bahamas.  The homes that were built by the people that lived here represent a bit of history from each culture.  They were constructed based on the materials available at the time, many out of Dade County Pine.  This now coveted building material was chosen because of the extreme density of the wood and resistance to decay. Dade County Pine is no longer available, so most people choose to maintain and restore it in their historic homes. I found it interesting to learn that many homes were built by ship’s carpenters without any building plans at all. They were constructed with great detail and practicality related to living in a hot tropical climate.  Homes were built on piers which allowed air to circulate underneath the floors.  Covered front porches and louvered shutters gave the homeowners some much needed shade while open windows and roof scuttles (which are similar to hatches on a ship) allowed the tropical breezes to flow through the home since fans and air conditioning were not available.

There are a variety of interesting home styles throughout Old Town including eyebrow houses, Conch Victorians and shotgun houses – many of which are small cigar maker cottages.  These smaller cottages provided simple worker housing for the employees of the cigar factories.  Often when I am showing homes in Key West, people will ask how to define each style of home, so I will summarize what I have learned about the styles of these historic homes:

According to Wikipedia, the conch house style was developed in Key West by Bahamian immigrants, known as “Conchs”. Many Bahamians had experience building boats, and the earliest conch houses were built like boats, using timber framing.   The term “conch house” has been applied to houses built in a variety of styles in Key West, but the most common usage is for houses built in a Bahamian style.

Eyebrow homes are a uniquely Key West Architectural style.  This style home often has two levels and the roof line slopes down over the windows on the second floor to create the look of an “eyebrow” which, along with a covered porch, created shade on the second floor.  A shotgun style cottage means the rooms are arranged one behind the other and if you fired a shotgun from the front door the shot would fly cleanly from one end to the other.

We have many stunning large conch Victorian homes, but I must say, I have not seen so many small homes in any other city with such beauty and character, not to mention creative use of space.  An extreme example is the home in the photo on the left, which is located in the Meadows part of Old Town.  What started as a shack has now been built into a home with only 280 square feet, yet it contains a sleeping loft, living area, kitchen and bathroom.  This tiny space may not be typical, but it is not unusual to find adorable cottages with only one or two bedrooms; what many Key Westers consider plenty of living space – a mere 700 square feet.  It helps that our climate allows for much of our living to include outdoor living space, and it certainly helps that our small closets don’t need to fit a wardrobe for multiple seasons.

Originally from Minneapolis, after 17 years in corporate America she traded in her high heels for flip flops and now thoroughly revels in island life… professionally and personally!