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

By Jeff Book
November 25, 2002
Carey and Jane Winfrey updated a Key West Conch house, while keeping the charm of this island cottage built in the early 1800s.
William C. Minarich

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

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

Self-professed old-house people (they had already restored an1825 Greek Revival house in Dutchess County, New York), Carey andJane were smitten by the traditional architecture of what has beencalled "America's largest outdoor museum of wooden houses." Despiteheat, hurricanes, and termites, tiny Key West harbors a treasure ofvintage structures.

The Winfreys' early 1880s Conch house (the local term for anysimple wooden residence) would have been a familiar type to thespongers, wreck salvagers, and cigarmakers who filled the town backthen. The Classical Revival sawtooth (from the ridges of itsparallel gabled roofs) had three bays--originally, a centralentrance hall flanked by two small rooms. The "classical" derivesmainly from its simple porch columns and harmonious proportions,but the couple might well have thought it referred to ruins: Thoughclad in deathless pink aluminum siding, the house had major termitedamage, dry rot, plants poking up through the floor, and raindrizzling through the roof.

"It dawned on us that it wasn't going to be just threecarpenters working for three weeks," says Carey. Determined torestore the house's original character (and satisfy Key West'svigilant Historical Architecture Review Commission), they beganworking with preservation-savvy architects William Horn and FrankHerdliska. Like many owners of coastal homes, the Winfreys reviewedthe 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, hadsucked them in, it would also bridge the long-distance gap via theInternet and a stream of e-mailed communiques, photos, and drawingschronicling the project's bumpy progress.

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

The bedroom wing was jacked up and given a higher roof, Frenchdoors, and soundproofing to muffle the neighboring rooster'swake-up calls. The porch was rebuilt. Metal-frame windows gave wayto custom, six-over-six wooden ones with old-fashioned thinmuntins, flanked by operable shutters. In went centralair-conditioning, with unobtrusive wooden vents.

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

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

She chose the house's tropic-cool colors, Carey built the bedsin the guest cottage, and both had a hand in the decor. Piecesshipped from New York mingle easily with local finds, from asea-bright mounted dolphinfish to paintings by street artist DanielConnor.

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

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