The Custom House was the location of the inquest into the 1898 sinking of the ‘USS Maine’ in Havana Harbor. It caused the death of 260 crew members. While not apparent to those passing by, one of Key West’s most prominent landmarks is undergoing a major renovation. The Custom House, the red brick museum at 281 Front St., undergoing a complete overhaul to update the fire suppression, electrical and plumbing systems. The 124-year-old building, built in the Richardsonian Romanesque style of architecture typical of late 19th Century federal buildings, was once home to the island’s postal service, district courts and customs office.
It was built to keep pace with lucrative trade routes and maritime industries that once made Key West the richest city per capita in the United States.When the city went bankrupt in the 1930s, the building was transferred to the U.S. Navy as headquarters for its Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico operations. Over time, the building was abandoned as surplus property and was later purchased in 1991 by the state’s Land Acquisition Advisory Council. In 1999, it reopened as a museum after a nine-year, $9 million restoration spearheaded by the Key West Art & Historical Society to return the building to its former glory.
In Phase 1 of the latest renovation, second-floor windows were replaced. In the second phase handled by Bender & Associate Architects, D.L. Porter Constructors, Nearshore Electric and Gary’s Plumbing, internal upgrades are being done, including streamlining electrical systems for energy efficiency, updating fire-control systems, bringing plumbing systems up to code and installing additional basement pumps to prevent potential flooding during storms.It’s been funded by the Dogwood Foundation, the Monroe County Tourist Development Council and the society’s Keystone Circle of Donors.Phase 3 will focus on roof repairs. Phase 4 will upgrade the air conditioning. Phase 5 will repair and replace damaged and eroded masonry.The museum, open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., has two and a half floors of exhibitions that weave together two centuries of history, art, people and events of the Florida Keys.