Thesis: Key West

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The Architectural Styles of Key West

Many houses in Key West are said to be of the conch style, but if you are not familiar with what a conch house is, that wouldn't be helpful. So, what is a conch house? When the early settlers from the Bahamas and the Florida Keys created their homes they used a mortar that was made of water, lime, and sand (Hemmel & Smith, 2004). The way that they got their lime during that time period was through the burning of conch shells. They had no bricks or building stones during that time, so they also used many of the conch shells in the actual creation of their homes (Hemmel & Smith, 2004).

They had such an abundance of the conch shells that it was easy to use them in all sorts of ways, including construction, and they were solid and durable (Hemmel & Smith, 2004). This is how the term 'conch house' actually got its name. Later on, settlers and ship's carpenters started constructing wooden homes (Hemmel & Smith, 2004). They liked the look of the conch houses, and they felt that if they blended that look with other architectural styles, it would be even better. These blended, wooden homes eventually took on the conch house name (Hemmel & Smith, 2004).

They were described by several authors as far back as 1880 in that they were adapted very well to a tropical climate and had all the necessities to handle that type of weather (Hemmel & Smith, 2004). They were shelters from rain and from heat, and they had no chimneys or other fancy and colorful additions that would be seen (and needed) in more northern climates. Instead, they were basic but very beautiful, and they were solid and well-equipped to deal with the elements (Hemmel & Smith, 2004). People do not live in tropical climates fail to realize how difficult it can be sometimes to survive and protect oneself in the extreme heat and the torrential rains that people often must go through. The northern winters are brutal as well, but there are different things needed with which to handle these temperature differences.

One of the most important things to note with the conch houses of today is that they have many classic elements from different cultures. This has been inherited due to influences coming along from a lot of different places. The Key West architecture now has its roots in the conch houses of the original settlers, but also in the Bahamas, Africa, and even New England (Hemmel & Smith, 2004). Styles and architectural ideas often change quite quickly, and that means that the 'original' things of a particular place don't stay original for that long (Hemmel & Smith, 2004).

Instead, they grow and change and develop so that they can provide better shelter and better aesthetics for the people who live in them (Hemmel & Smith, 2004). The reason that conch houses have stayed so popular is that they are made of hand-crafted wood and constructed by carpenters who were also sea-farers. As such, they use not only the standard building forms of the Gulf Coast but also architectural ideas from the New England seacoast and adaptations from tropical homes in the Caribbean.

Features of the Classic Conch House

If one looks closely at the classic conch houses, what is revealed is a home that is energy-efficient and sensible for living in a tropical climate (Goodwin-Nguyen, 2008). Some of the features of the conch houses are generally not seen in many other places (Goodwin-Nguyen, 2008). These include:

Homes that rest on piers instead of on a slab like a more traditional house. This is done to allow air to circulate through the home and around it. It keeps the house cooler in the summertime than it otherwise would be, and it also helps to keep the wood from rotting from the dampness that is seen in tropical climates. In addition, hurricanes and other bad storms that can cause flooding are not as much of a problem because the flood waters can pass under the house instead of going through and destroying it.

Sloping roofs made of metal that are better able to reflect the heat that a tropical and sunny climate can bring. These roofs also have gutter systems that can be used to carry clean water to a cistern or other storage tank. Not all of these homes have metal roofs, but most of them do because they handle the heat so much better than their wooden or shingle counterparts.

Most of these homes also have dormers in the attic, and that helps to take that otherwise-unused attic space and convert it into bedrooms. Roof hatches are also seen for ventilation, which is a great concept that was borrowed from ship-builders who created many of the early conch houses.

The exterior walls of these homes have no fire stops, or horizontal blocks that are usually places between wall studs when a home is being constructed. By leaving these out, air is able to flow and circulate from the crawl space all the way to the attic. Through convection, the heat in the attic and the walls is able to dissipate, and this also works to keep the home much cooler.

Most of these homes have louvered shutters for hurricane protection, but these same shutters are used to block out the heat of a tropical afternoon while still letting the sea breezes circulate through the home.

Verandas and porches that go around the house - often encircling the entirety of it - cut down on the heat by providing more shade and keeping the home a bit cooler. Each one of the rooms in the home then has tongue-in-groove wood construction throughout, including the floors, walls, and ceilings. By doing this, there is more rigidity and each room is essentially its own little cube. This is a great way to help the home resist the hurricanes that come through the keys with seemingly increasing frequency (Goodwin-Nguyen, 2008).

Today, there are a lot of restored conch houses that can be seen in Key West, and there are many walking tours that visitors can go on in order to see these (Linsley, 2007). The most popular of these is the Conch Train Tour, which begins near Mallory Square on Front Street and takes visitors all around the city to learn about the architecture and the culture of Key West (Linsley, 2007). As much as individuals like to see Key West now, it's important to realize that it has changed a lot over the years, and the architecture has changed with it. Originally the early influences were mostly Caribbean, but something came along that affected that: building codes (Linsley, 2007).

Building Codes Have Changed the Landscape

There were no codes when people first started constructing homes in Key West or anywhere else (Linsley & Aron, 1992). Now, the codes allow people to build their homes closer to the ground than they were allowed to before (Linsley & Aron, 1992). Much of this comes from the idea that newer construction ideas and materials have made homes stronger and more stable. As such, they are better equipped to handle hurricanes and floods and other problems. They are also more easily heated and cooled, so there is not as much need for homes that are way up there on stilts (Linsley & Aron, 1992). However, stilted homes still predominate in that area of the country both because of the look of them and because most people who build there just like them better.

There are trends getting started, though, and they go right along with some changes in the ownership of land in Key West (Linsley & Aron, 1992). These have brought a larger mix of various home designs to the Keys. There have been not only advances seen in designs, but there have also been new options in the color of the stucco that can be used and the roofing materials that are preferred in that part of the country (Linsley & Aron, 1992). The appearance of the island is changing, but a lot of people still build and restore conch style houses as a way to live the island life and preserve what was already seen as a tradition in Key West and the other islands that make up the Florida Keys (Linsley & Aron, 1992). Not everyone follows this trend, but most do.

Other Architectural Styles and Changes

In addition to the conch houses and the various influences that were put into them, there is also a West Indian influence in some of the houses in the Keys (Keith, 2002). The Caribbean theme that is closely tied to this shows wide, overhanging eaves and earth-colored tile roofs (Keith, 2002). These are very popular in Key West, and the influence of them has spread to other Keys in the island chain as well, because they are so popular and seem to… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Key West.  (2008, September 11).  Retrieved August 22, 2019, from

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"Key West."  11 September 2008.  Web.  22 August 2019. <>.

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"Key West."  September 11, 2008.  Accessed August 22, 2019.