Key West Museum of Art & History

281 Front Street, Key West, FL 33040 - United States

305-295-6616

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Originally home to the island’s customs office, postal service, and district courts, this four-story architectural marvel was built to keep pace with the increasing population and wealth accumulating from Key West’s lucrative trade routes and maritime industries. The imposing structure is a tremendous exemplar of Richardsonian Romanesque architecture which was typical for Federal building projects near the end of the 19th century.

Positioned adjacent to the U.S. Naval base, the Custom House was the site of many significant historical events, most notably the inquiry into the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana harbor in 1898.

In 1932, the building transferred to the U.S. Navy and became headquarters for their Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico operations. When the Navy no longer required use of the building, it was declared surplus and abandoned for nearly twenty years. The Custom House was eventually purchased by the State of Florida’s Land Acquisition Advisory Council in 1991 and leased to the Key West Art & Historical Society for use as a museum.

Today, “Old 91” has been faithfully restored and stands on the harbor as a national landmark, an award-winning museum and official headquarters of the Key West Art & Historical Society. Experience two floors of exhibitions that weave together two centuries of history, art, people, and events.

Exhibits

Duval Street: The Longest Street in the World
March 19 - Summer 2021
Custom House Museum | Bryan Gallery

Duval Street is the most recognized street in the Florida Keys, serving as the island’s core cultural and historical artery. It is whimsically dubbed ‘The Longest Street in the World’ since it stretches one-and-a-quarter miles from the Gulf of Mexico on the north end all the way to the Atlantic Ocean on its southern edge. Home to architectural gems such as St. Paul’s Church, The Strand Theater, the San Carlos Institute and the Southernmost House, it has also hosted iconic bars and restaurants including Sloppy Joe’s, the Monster, Pepe’s Cafe, Shorty’s Diner, Delmonico and countless more.

In spite of its legendary reputation, Duval Street had a very humble beginning. When Key West was settled in the 1820s, Whitehead Street emerged as the central road it ran from the seaport down to the original Key West Lighthouse near today’s Southernmost Point. Duval, named for Florida’s first territorial governor, William Pope Duval, was a minor thoroughfare since a sizeable area around the northern end was a saltwater pond and the southern end had yet to be cleared of trees. A few years prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, the city decided to fill in the pond so Duval Street could run unrestricted through the center of downtown.

This modification signaled a turning point for Duval Street. Not only did Duval grow in length, there was also an increased importance to wreckers, spongers, cigar manufacturers, tourists and residents who built grand houses, churches, places of business, restaurants and saloons.

A few of the remarkable objects that will be on display include a 100-foot section of the “Sea to Sea” Rainbow Flag that was spread 1.25 miles from the Gulf to the Atlantic in 2003 and a silk menu from a luncheon held at the Russell Hotel in honor of Ulysses S. Grant’s visit to the island in 1880. Intaglios illustrating several Duval Street buildings created by Cuban-American artist Mario Sanchez will also be presented to visitors.

“So much of our island’s heritage is connected to that one-and-a-quarter mile thoroughfare,” adds Convertito. “By mounting this exhibition, the Society hopes to enlighten visitors on the historical importance of Duval Street that extends well beyond its bars and restaurants; we must honor the people, the buildings and events that shaped our story.”

Under Construction | Glass Plate Negatives of A.V. Rabenau
April 30 - September 12, 2021
Custom House Museum | Bumpus Gallery

The Key West Art & Historical Society is pleased to announce its latest exhibition, “Under Construction: Glass Plate Negatives of A.V. Rabenau,” a display of vintage photographs staged in the Bumpus Gallery at the Custom House Museum. Curated by Cori Convertito, the exhibition features black and white prints from the original glass plate negatives taken by an itinerant photographer known as A.V. Rabenau.

The negatives were acquired by the Key West Art & Historical Society in late 2020 from a private collector. The collection consists of over sixty early 20th century glass plate negatives taken by Rabenau during a visit to the Florida Keys. Little is known of the photographer, but his striking work suggests he was an experienced professional. He visited the Florida Keys during a pivotal time in its history – the construction of the Overseas Railway. The ‘dry plate’ negatives are not dated, but it is probable that he paid a visit to the island chain sometime between 1909 and 1911.

“Rabenau was not alone in using glass plate negatives to capture images of railroad construction workers. From about 1870 to 1920, many photographers used fragile glass plates to portray daily life,” says Convertito. “Plates were sold in boxes, factory-coated with a gelatin emulsion of silver bromide, available through mail order or at stores in large villages such as Key West. The photographer loaded one negative at a time into their camera, made the exposure, and stored the negative until he or she developed it in a home darkroom.”

Significant portions of Rabenau’s images are staged portraits of the men, women and children living and working on Pigeon Key. Others are portraits of Key West’s residents taken at the time when the photographer established a temporary studio on the island.

“The negatives speak to a special time and place in Florida Keys history,” adds Convertito. “Rabenau never published his photographs, meaning the museum’s recently acquired collection brings never-before-seen images to light. You will not find his striking portraits anywhere else. They are a treasure.”

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