Audubon House and Tropical Gardens.

February 17th, 2021

1948 photograph of the Audubon House. Photo Courtesy: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

On this edition of Learning from Miami we travel to Key West to explore the history of the Audubon House and Tropical Gardens.

John James Audubon, the famous American artist and ornithologist, set out to create the most detailed pictorial record of all the bird species in North America.  In 1832, he traveled to Key West and spent six weeks observing and painting wild birds. According to legend, Audubon visited the lush tropical garden on the property that is now known as the Audubon House and used plant cuttings from the property to create the illustrations in his famous “Birds of America” field guide. It is rumored that Audubon cut a branch off a tree that locals had dubbed “the Geiger tree” and included an illustration of the plant in his field guide. The residence located at 205 Whitehead Street and named for Audubon would not be built until fifteen years after Audubon’s visit. Despite being named for him, Audubon had never actually been to the home.

The home was built by Captain John Huling Geiger, a maritime pilot who amassed a fortune salvaging shipwrecks, making him one of the richest men in Key West. Geiger purchased the property and built his home after the devastating hurricane of 1846. Geiger’s home is a prime example of  American Classic Revival architectural style and Geiger spared no expense when it came to his dream home. The entire wooden mansion was assembled with mortise and tenon joints. The wooden frame of the house and the floors were crafted out of Dade County pine, a now-extinct hardwood almost impervious to termites. The exterior doors were constructed out of cypress, and the staircase is mahogany. Ten generations of Geigers lived in the home until the 1950s.

In 1958, the Geiger home was slated to be demolished and replaced by a gas station. Wometco founder Colonel Mitchell Wolfson, Sr. and his wife Frances intervened and invested $250,000 to restore the historic home and purchase 22 original Audubon paintings. Key West architect and developer Alfred Milton Evans and his brothers were hired to restore the aging home.

Two years later, the home was reopened as a public museum. In honor of Audubon’s historic visit to the property, the home was officially named the Audubon House Museum and Tropical Gardens. The Wolfson’s renovation ignited the restoration movement in Old Key West.

Today, the Key West Audubon House is a museum and event venue space. Captain Geiger’s family home is adorned with early 19th century furniture, including several original items belonging to the Geiger family. The Audubon House Gallery is separate from the main house features a unique collection of 19th century original Audubon art and a comprehensive selection of John James Audubon’s images.

-Ursa Gil

Resources 

http://audubonhouse.org/#:~:text=Audubon%20House%20Museum&text=The%20home%20was%20originally%20built,during%20his%20visit%20in%201832.

Key West Audubon House: Fascinating characters, enchanting spot

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