Welcome to the Oldest House in South Florida- a house which bears witness to the history of the uniqueness of the southernmost city of Key West. It has survived pirates, warfare, hurricanes, fire, economic hardship and prosperity and now serves as a home museum also paying tribute to the maritime profession of its most important resident, sea captain and "wrecker" Francis Watlington.
The house is a one and a half story "New England Bahama House" (or in more sophisticated architectural design parlance, a Classic Revival five-bay center hall plan) built in 1829 just 8 years after the treaty with Spain which ceded East Florida and the Keys to the United States for unpaid debts. Until about 1832 it was located on Whitehead St. near Caroline when it was moved, by mule and heavy rollers, to its current location here on bustling Duval St. The builder Richard W Cussans was among those who migrated to the island after Commodore David Porter and his "mosquito fleet" effectively eliminated a plague of pirates who had terrorized the islands for many years. A ship's carpenter, Cussans incorporated maritime features into the architectural design: mortise and tenon joinery, horizontal wall boards of now extinct Dade County Pine, a ship's hatch cut into the master bedroom roof to raise for ventilation.

The three dormers on the front are of different sizes having been adapted over the years to the whims of the owner and the need for air and light. The rare free standing cook house in the rear garden is an excellent example of the such construction, keeping the cooking heat and threat of fire apart from the main dwelling. (During the late 1800s and early to mid 1900s the area between the main house and this kitchen were connected with a structure & porches that provided sleeping space for this large family). The rear gardens include many examples of indigenous plants and fruit trees, particularly lime and banana.

From approximately 1834 this was the home of Capt. Francis Watlington, his wife Emmeline and his seven (of nine) surviving daughters. Watlington's family was from St. Croix, the Virgin Islands, but he was born in New York City in 1804 and learned his piloting trade in New York Harbor. His photo in the hallway shows the seven stern looking Watlington daughters who grew up in this house.

Watlington arrived in Key West in 1828 becoming a harbor pilot, coastal pilot, and wrecker, the latter under the tutelage of his father-in-law to be, Capt. Charles Johnson. Johnson was to meet shame and scandal and ultimately his death as the result of his arrest on ten counts of fraud in the wrecking case of the brig Hercules. Watlington's marriage to Johnson's daughter Emmeline and his subsequent appointment as a Customs Inspector and later as captain of the Sand Key Lightship, captain of his own schooner Activa, member of the Florida House of Representatives (from 1859-1861) and "Lieutenant for the war" in 1861 under Key West hero and Secretary of the Navy for the Confederacy Stephen Mallory, cleansed the Johnson name and established Watlington as a highly respected citizen. This house at 322 Duval St. became a "social center" in the heart of the City of Key West.
Wrecker's Trade - Contrary to local folk lore, the wreckers trade was a highly respectable one and, while enormously lucrative (contributing to the designation of Key West as having the highest per capita income in the early 1830s), held social significance for its life- and goods-saving concerns. The custom was to set sail out every morning very early in stormy or good weather in search of wrecks on the reef. Passengers, crew and cargo were removed from the vessel and brought to Key West where the sale of the cargo was advertised and sold at auction. The money raised was divided the court. One half was paid to the owner of the wrecked ship, one third was paid to the wrecker. The remainder was paid out to the "bureaucrats" (clerks, lawyers, state etc.).
In the hallway note the framed Wreckers' License and rules of wrecking nearby. There is no case on record of anybody wrecking a ship by means of false lights on the beaches. Their business was saving lives, cargo, and ships when they could. Some wreckers were greedy and cunning but most were honest mariners, brave and adept at their dangerous job for which they could get no personal insurance. Please take note of the "Black List". These men were barred from getting their licenses renewed because they were guilty of breaking the rules...perjuring themselves in court or stealing from the cargo. Insurance fraud and collusion were prime sins.
Please enjoy your tour of the home and continue out to the porch, the Captain's office, the Cook House and along the bricks to the rear pavilion exhibits.
TWO FRONT ROOMS: The furniture in the house is 19th century American. More than 1/2 is original to the Watlington family. The large formal parlor represents the years 1830 to 1850. The rose colored Federal sofa was original black horsehair and quite uncomfortable. The two excellent maritime oil paintings are by W.W. Cowell dated in the 1860s.
The Formal Parlour is set up for tea. The cherry and mahogany armoire and the chairs are from the Watlingtons. The tea set is Meissen; the chocolate cups are Royal Vienna.
HALLWAY: The portraits on either side of the Formal Parlour entrance are of Emmeline Watlington Ward (third daughter of the Watlington's) and her first husband, Lt. William Ward and were donated to the museum by Garth Cold Sr., grandson of the Wards. The walnut card table is original to the family.

  The corner cupboard is marked Philadelphia, 1810. The sideboard dates about 1830 and is from the Watlingtons. The dining chairs are from Baltimore, the side chairs are about 1880 and were once used as dining chairs. On the stairway going up you will see in print Landlubber's Primer, a guide to ships' riggings in the late 19th century and the Wreckers' Song and at the top of the stairs a print of Old Key West showing the shipyards at work. At the bottom of the stairs is a handsome oil on board of the Jubilee.
BEDROOM AT RIGHT: The opening in the roof is a "ship's hatch". Early houses had no attics, so hatches were employed to release hot air which collected under the ceilings. You will see the outline of a former hatch in the doll enclosure across the hall. The netting on the bed is to keep mosquitoes off the sleeping occupants. The chamber pots under the beds were toilets. The china receptacle in the low wooden stand is a "bidet" to wash intimate body parts. The bed is an original Watlington.
ACROSS THE HALL: This room slept some of the Watlington daughters. Long since destroyed out buildings and porches probably served as additional sleeping quarters. The 100 year old dolls and the newer doll house need no explanation. But, do look at the mural in the dining room by Martha Watson Sauer of Key West.
Returning downstairs...
ON THE BACK PORCH: The shipping route map shows how important the Florida Straits were for commerce in the 1800s and just how treacherous these unmarked waters could be. At left you may open the lid of the cistern and see where rain water was stored - the only drinking water in the old days. A pipeline bringing water from the springs of Florida City was built to accommodate military forces established here just before WW II. Be sure to see the cartoons under the "Sister City" Document signed by Prime Minister Pindling of the Commonwealth of the Bahamas, 1977. One shows the early "Wrecker's Court" where wreckers passed judgement on each other - outlawed in 1828 and replaced by a Federally appointed Admiralty Court. And, a woman who operated a coaling business and how she handled the law officers. And the third, town bar owners and rowdies try to teach the new preacher not to preach on the evils of drink!
THE CAPTAINS OFFICE: This room and the matching one opposite on the porch were added at the same time, probably for additional sleeping areas. Can you find the "landlubber's tilt"? Is it a case of laziness or too much rum? The largest ship model was a gift from New Plymouth, Green Turtle Cay in the Bahamas - our "sister city". The two Chinese teakwood chests are lined in camphor and belonged to the last Watlington descendent to live here. The small carrying chest was a part of all sea captains ship-side store - it carried fitted bottles of rum used as medicine or rum, ration for the crew. The captain's desk is mahogany, slant lid type with carved claw feet, c. 1830. The rocking chair with recently restored caning dates 1838 and was the Captain's favorite chair.
COOK HOUSE: Always separate from the main house because of the fear of fire and heat from the open fireplace! The wall oven is a "beehive oven" believed to be the only one intact in Florida outside of the Ximenez-Fatio house in St. Augustine which was built in the 1790s. Notice the old egg carriers, various cooking implements.
Please stroll to the end of the garden where you will see artifacts from the sea, pictures of wreckers and wrecking and maybe learn to tie a sailor's knot or two. The shipwreck machine shows about 50 shipwrecks picked at random from the 19th century. There were hundreds more! Please rest in our garden and notice the trees. The largest are the Cuban trees mamoncilla, a sweet-tart fruit for quenching the thirst; banana trees, coconut palms, oleander bushes and more.
We hope you have enjoyed your visit. "We" are the Old Island Restoration Foundation, a non-profit group formed in 1960 to preserve and protect the historically significant architectural treasures on the island. Thank you!

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