Conch Cottage Revival

William C. Minarich
Aided by the Internet, a preservation-minded couple take a rickety Key West home from the
19th century into the 21st.

Carey and Jane Winfrey were drawn to Key West by tradition, starting with a personal one: Every year, they celebrate their wedding anniversary in a new place. That's what brought them four years ago to Florida's far end, where they "biked around, liked the architecture, and called a real estate agent just to see what houses were going for," Carey recalls. "Two weeks later he sent us a videotape showing a derelict house he called a diamond in the rough."

The agent was no Kubrick, but his video walk-through was as riveting as the spine-tingling dolly shots in The Shining. After watching it dozens of times, the Winfreys decided he was right and put in a bid (contingent, of course, on a nonvirtual inspection).

Self-professed old-house people (they had already restored an 1825 Greek Revival house in Dutchess County, New York), Carey and Jane were smitten by the traditional architecture of what has been called "America's largest outdoor museum of wooden houses." Despite heat, hurricanes, and termites, tiny Key West harbors a treasure of vintage structures.

The Winfreys' early 1880s Conch house (the local term for any simple wooden residence) would have been a familiar type to the spongers, wreck salvagers, and cigarmakers who filled the town back then. The Classical Revival sawtooth (from the ridges of its parallel gabled roofs) had three bays--originally, a central entrance hall flanked by two small rooms. The "classical" derives mainly from its simple porch columns and harmonious proportions, but the couple might well have thought it referred to ruins: Though clad in deathless pink aluminum siding, the house had major termite damage, dry rot, plants poking up through the floor, and rain drizzling through the roof.

"It dawned on us that it wasn't going to be just three carpenters working for three weeks," says Carey. Determined to restore the house's original character (and satisfy Key West's vigilant Historical Architecture Review Commission), they began working with preservation-savvy architects William Horn and Frank Herdliska. Like many owners of coastal homes, the Winfreys reviewed the renovation from afar--first New York, then Washington, D.C., where they moved after Carey was named editor in chief of Smithsonian.

But if technology, in the form of the hypnotic video tour, had sucked them in, it would also bridge the long-distance gap via the Internet and a stream of e-mailed communiques, photos, and drawings chronicling the project's bumpy progress.

"It would have been easier to build a house from scratch than do what we did," Carey says. "We took it down to studs and daylight." They decided to tear out the central hall and make one open living space. Beneath linoleum and barrow board (a precursor to drywall) they found Dade County pine, a now-rare wood prized for its durability and rich grain.

The bedroom wing was jacked up and given a higher roof, French doors, and soundproofing to muffle the neighboring rooster's wake-up calls. The porch was rebuilt. Metal-frame windows gave way to custom, six-over-six wooden ones with old-fashioned thin muntins, flanked by operable shutters. In went central air-conditioning, with unobtrusive wooden vents.

Contractor Brian McKendry raised and rolled the ramshackle garage onto a concrete slab, then sheathed it in insulation and rough-sawn wood siding, leaving the reinforced, termite-tracked studs exposed on the inside. "It was important to Carey and Jane to keep the old look," he says of the now airy guest cottage.

Through it all, Brian e-mailed them progress reports, complete with more than 100 digital photos. "I would look forward all week to getting those pictures," recalls Carey. "The Internet helped us feel less anxious about the whole process," adds Jane.

She chose the house's tropic-cool colors, Carey built the beds in the guest cottage, and both had a hand in the decor. Pieces shipped from New York mingle easily with local finds, from a sea-bright mounted dolphinfish to paintings by street artist Daniel Connor.

Outside is a colorful profusion of plants. Garden designer Sandy Lee supplemented the existing palms and hibiscus with native flora, planted to pass what she calls "the naked test--when you can run around the yard naked and no one will see you."

The couple's Key West getaway now boasts a ceramic star, the top award of the Historic Florida Keys Foundation, which called the home "sensitively redone. A textbook rehabilitation." By stressing, as Carey says, "what's right over what's expedient," the Winfreys restored their Conch classic for the long haul.

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