A Travel Guide to Key West’s Historic Audubon House and Its Role in Island History

Tucked away on a side street in Key West’s Old Town neighborhood sits the Audubon House, a tranquil retreat that offers visitors a glimpse into the area’s rich history along with some serene natural beauty. Named after famed ornithologist and painter John James Audubon, the house serves as a museum honoring his works and time spent on the islands in 1832 documenting over 100 species of birds. Even if you don’t consider yourself a bird enthusiast, a stop inside the Audubon House makes for an interesting addition to any Key West itinerary.

From Pirate Lairs to Luxurious Estates

The story of the property at 205 Whitehead Street dates back to the early 1800s, when Key West was still a rough frontier outpost driven by fishing, turtling, and wrecking industries. Like many structures in Old Town during that era, the land was originally owned by Juan Pedro Salas, a Spanish merchant who made his living as a wrecker salvaging cargo from ships that ran aground on the treacherous nearby reefs. Around 1829, a Bahamian wrecker named John Huling Geiger purchased the property from Salas and built a two-story home typical of those in the Bahamas at the time, with a stone fireplace, pitched roof with gables at each end, and wraparound porch to take advantage of the sea breezes.

Geiger was known to engage in piracy and smuggling, using Key West as an ideal home base due to its remoteness and proximity to heavily-trafficked shipping routes. Local legend claims the cellar foundations housed a secret tunnel at one point, allowing Geiger and his pirate crew to covertly bring their plunder ashore for hiding and dividing. After Geiger, from the 1830s to 1865, the house passed through a series of owners and witnessed the growing tensions among Key West residents in the years leading up to the Civil War. The dwelling gained its current name and international fame when John James Audubon spent three weeks there in 1832 working on his Birds of America collection.

Wealthy merchant-turned-conservationist George W. Phillips acquired the property after the Civil War, and under his ownership, it was transformed into one of the most elegant private residences in Key West. Phillips expanded the dwelling into a 6,800 square foot estate complete with lavish furnishings imported from Europe and Asia. Prominent guests like Henry Flagler were known to enjoy Phillips’ hospitality and take advantage of ship-watching opportunities from the third-floor observatory deck.

Preserving a Piece of Paradise

By the early 20th century, smelly cigarmaking factories came to dominate Key West, driving the affluent into new exclusive neighborhoods away from the growing industrial zone downtown. The property exchanged hands several times and started to enter a period of disrepair and neglect. Fortunately, concerned citizens had the foresight to rescue the estate before it was demolished in the 1960s. Recognizing the home’s historical significance and connection to Audubon through preservation of his original workroom, they carefully restored many original features and opened the building as a nonprofit museum in 1968.

Today, visitors who love history, nature, architecture, and art will all find something intriguing within the Audubon House’s walls. Give yourself at least an hour to explore the house and gardens at a leisurely pace. Guided group tours provide an excellent overview and hit the main highlights, while self-guided wanderers can truly immerse themselves in quiet corners like Audubon’s workroom where he painted many of his famed watercolors. Peek inside period-furnished bedrooms and common rooms to envision life as an early Key West settler or wealthy businessman during the property’s varied past incarnations. Unique historic building methods are visible throughout such as tabby walled exteriors typical of early island structures that use a concrete created from sand and crushed shells.

Tranquil Tropical Gardens

Part of what makes the Audubon House experience so enjoyable involves getting lost amid winding brick pathways as you traverse through lush gardens on the nearly half-acre grounds. The Writer’s Cottage served as a guesthouse dating back to the Geiger era and now hosts museum exhibits about nature and conservation. Pause to take in fragrant frangipani trees and Bahamian date palms reminiscent of those that originally drew Audubon here to document the native wildlife. Numerous plaques and informational panels identify other plants and explain how Audubon captured their likeness in his paintings, further connecting the natural beauty seen today with its history as an inspiring setting.

While meandering about, keep an eye out for the rookery in the trees where egrets, pelicans, cormorants, and other birds still nest today just as they did when Audubon made his home here. The grounds also contain Key’s West’s first cistern for catching rainwater; modern-day adaptations allow drought-tolerant plants to thrive despite the occasional dry spells. Come across the family cemetery dating back to 1829 and ponder tales about spirits of former residents haunting the premises late at night. Visitors rave about the tranquility and loveliness of the outdoor areas, making it easy to see why the property’s first owners chose to build in such an oasis hiding amid the busy city streets.

Tips for Visiting

The Audubon House sits on the corner of Whitehead and Olivia Streets in Old Town, within walking distance of popular Key West attractions like the Hemingway Home, Key West Lighthouse Museum, and Mallory Square. Public parking downtown near the shore fills up quickly, so arrive early or consider renting bikes, scooters, or taking the on-off trolley to facilitate transportation. Admission costs $18 for adults, $15 senior and military discounts, and $8 ages 6-17; the reasonable fees provide vital support in maintaining the site along with memberships and private donations.

Hours run daily from 9:30am to around 5pm with last tickets sold at 4:15, though days and times vary seasonally so check the website for updates. Guided tours kick off every half hour and last 30-45 minutes with lots of fascinating details about the dwelling’s architecture and interior design. Visit their gift shop for take-home souvenirs like prints of Audubon’s work or nature books to continue finding inspiration. Keep in mind interior photography is prohibited to protect fragile works, but capturing memories amid lush tropical gardens poses no issues.

Final Thoughts

Beyond coming face-to-face with original Audubon artworks, the charming property surprises visitors by serving up far more than just a museum for bird enthusiasts. Wander the rooms to uncover stories from its days as a pirate dwelling and opulent private estate, then embrace tranquil gardens outside that seem a world away from Key West’s energetic Duval Street. Whether you seek a peaceful retreat to wander with lunch from a nearby restaurant or simply want to soak in more of the area’s rich history, make time for this one-of-a-kind landmark that offers a lovely escape with plenty of nostalgia and natural beauty worth celebrating.

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