Key West’s Old Town contains one of the largest predominantly wooden historic districts in the United States — incorporating almost 3,000 structures that range from cigar-makers’ cottages to Victorian mansions. History and architecture buffs can celebrate the organization that helped preserve and protect the distinctive district during the Old Island Restoration Foundation’s 60th anniversary festivities.
Beginning Thursday, Nov. 14, the multimonth celebration continues through March 31, 2020, with events including a series of tours of notable Key West homes, a Noche Buena feast on Christmas Eve, presentations in the garden of Key West’s Oldest House Museum, a New Year’s Eve costume gala and a quirky conch shell blowing contest that commemorates the island city’s seafaring heritage.
The nonprofit Old Island Restoration Foundation was established in 1960 to promote the restoration and preservation of Key West’s historically significant buildings, as well as the island’s cultural heritage. In addition to providing restoration grants, the foundation maintains the Oldest House Museum at 322 Duval St. Built in 1829, the structure is the oldest house in South Florida and was the home of Captain Francis Watlington and his family.
The 60th anniversary schedule begins with a kick-off party in the garden of the Oldest House Museum set for 5-7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 14. Attendees can discover new exhibits at the museum, enjoy wine and small bites, get “sneak peek” details about upcoming house tours and learn about subsequent anniversary activities celebrating Key West’s architecture, culture and history.
Holiday events on the anniversary schedule include a family-friendly pre-Christmas gingerbread house–making party set for Saturday, Dec. 14; the open-air Noche Buena feast with a traditional roast pork dinner, full bar and entertainment; and an “1860s or 1960s” New Year’s Eve costume gala featuring “members” of the Watlington family in period costume.
Weekend home tours are to take place in December 2019 and January, February and March 2020 — each one featuring five houses and gardens that exemplify Key West’s rich architectural tradition, creativity in renovation, contemporary design and the Florida Keys lifestyle.
March 7 brings the OIRF’s famed Conch Shell Blowing Contest. Blowing into the fluted pink-lined shell of the hardy sea mollusk called conch is a Florida Keys tradition. Conch horns were used for signaling by early Native Americans, shipwreck salvagers and 19th-century seafarers. Today the shell is a symbol of the Keys, which are often called the Conch Republic.
Kids, adults and groups gather to compete in the annual “conch honk” held in the garden of the Oldest House Museum. Contestants take turns puckering up and raising a shell to their lips, attempting to make music (or at least respectable sounds) to impress the judging panel and a standing-room-only audience.
OIRF 60th anniversary information, schedule and tickets: oirf.org or 305-294-9501