A resurrected Key West property offers a little peace and quiet amid quirky island vibes.

By Cathy Still Johnson
June 08, 2007
Tria Giovan

Outside the tall wooden gates of Trip Hoffman and Alan Van Wieren’s pristine Key West home, tour guides drive by in open-air trolleys reciting scripts of pirate history into crackling microphones. But inside, sunlight bounces off the clear pool, animating palm shadows on the white, carefully restored circa-1905 house. The fountain splashes. Scents of gardenia waft on the constant breeze. And the sounds of the trolleys seem miles away.

No strangers to Key West, Trip and Alan have wintered here for about 16 years. Both play important roles on boards dedicated to preserving the history and architecture of the island. Five years ago, they saw promise in a run-down Queen Anne Victorian and knew restoring the house was one more way they could help salvage the area’s integrity.

“This house used to be on the ocean,” Trip says. “It was across the road from the beach where the fishing boats brought in their daily catch.” Though the house didn’t move, its setting changed. Hurricanes shifted sands, the Navy created additional land for forts and a secure harbor during World War II, and 134 acres were added to the island to support a futile railroad project. In the past 150 years, Key West has doubled in size.

The land expansions that pushed this house inland are probably what saved it. When Trip and Alan purchased the property, they found that despite past storms the house was fine structurally. “This is a testament to the high quality of the wood used and the skill of the original carpenters,” says Trip. “This was a shipbuilder’s home.”

The main challenges were correcting a bad 1950s renovation and updating the house for modern living. Goals included adding a bedroom, tearing out the added-on kitchen and reestablishing it in the back of the house, and restoring everything that remained from the original structure.

Missing or damaged tin shingles had to be replaced with matching ones. Most of the windows needed to be removed, reworked, and rehung. Woodwork that wasn’t salvageable―baseboards, moldings, door and window casings―had to be custom milled. New wiring and insulation were required, and all the baths needed renovation.

Luckily, a slanted shed that housed an old cistern also held a stack of the original Dade County pine (along with cypress) used throughout. From this, they were able to re-create or repair most of the millwork. Alan turned the surplus wood into cabinet fronts for the new kitchen.

For the bedroom addition above the kitchen, the roof had to be removed and reset to accommodate the second floor. “Although we designated this ‘new work’ with new windows and French doors,” says Trip, “we ensured architectural integrity by placing them on the same elevation as those of the original house.” The balcony’s spindles were custom turned to match the ones on the first-level porch.

The balcony addition overlooks the pool and cabana, which is framed by heavy canvas draperies tied back with raffia-and-shell tassels. Old and new pieces of rattan furniture sit under its vaulted ceiling. Alan found an antique daybed at a yard sale for $20. “The yard sales here in Key West are phenomenal,” he says. “They come down with all their Northern treasure, you have your café con leche, grab a newspaper, circle [the sales], number them, and go.”

Sisal and kilim rugs stretch across the pavilion’s wide plank floor. A local craftsman built the outdoor dining tables using porch spindles, salvaged from a Key West convent, as legs. Overhead, a wrought iron candelabra illuminates contented guests as whirring fans aid the 80-degree breezes. Spindle palms on either side of the steps segue into the spongy lawn surrounding the pool and lush garden beyond.

The garden wasn’t always so photo-worthy. The former stars of the neglected landscape were two stands of date palms. Trip and Alan planted to enhance these rare, mature trees, and filled the lot with indigenous foliage and flowers. Orchids flourish in pockets formed by overlapping bark on the palm trunks. Wine bottles buried bottoms-up outline beds and glisten like pirate loot in the sunlight. Leathery leaves provide springboards for plump tree frogs.

Inside the house, things are just as interesting. Trip and Alan describe their interior as a combination of “Asian, Haitian, flea market, and local Key West.” White trim and tongue-and-groove pine walls and ceilings throughout the house help unify the mélange of furnishings. Columns and Weller jardinieres filled with ferns mark a division between the dining room and living room. “This house is not the easiest house to decorate,” says Alan. “When you start putting wood furniture against wood walls, it just disappears.”

Something that is not likely to disappear, however, is the enthusiasm he and Trip have for their home, its preservation, and the historical importance and charm of Key West.