Ernest Hemingway’s Florida home ready to withstand 168th hurricane season…..
With Hurricane Irma bearing down on Florida, the team at the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum in Key West Home and Museum in Key West had an important decision to make: What should be done to protect the 54 historic cats that live on the property, many of which are descended of the author’s very own felines? One option was to launch an evacuation, packing the cats in crates, and driving their way to the mainland. The other was to shelter in place, trusting the 167-year-old house to keep the staff and their prized 6-toed pets safe, even as a category 4 storm raged nearby.
To the surprise of many media outlets, Dave Gonzales, the museum’s executive director, chose the latter option. Several staff members decided to remain in the historic home with the cats—and a bevy of emergency supplies, from veterinary medicine to bulk Gatorade. While Gonzales stresses that his decision should not be a model for others (no one should follow the Hemingway House’s lead and shelter in place if evacuating is a safer choice for them), the staff seems to have had a nice time, all things considering. “Besides the downed trees we were having to carve around us, and picking up the debris around us, we were living and eating normally,” he says.
The reasons for this normalcy are up for debate. Some attributed it to Hurricane Irma’s last-minute deviation from its projected course, which ravaged the middle Keys, but left Key West and many of its historic homes relatively unscathed. Others, more critical of the decision to shelter in place and ignore the government-mandated evacuation, called it sheer dumb luck. But Gonzales says it was the Hemingway Home’s unique architectural qualities that kept his crew safe. (Well, that and a priest’s blessing, bestowed on the iconic cats and their human keepers shortly before the storm hit.)
“We have probably the strongest fortress on the island that is not only a safe structure but has been there since 1851 with zero structural damage,” Gonzales says. While climatological records remained spotty until the late 19th century, this means the house has successfully weathered approximately 20 hurricanes and tropical storms that have historically pummeled Key West—and the corresponding onslaught of wind and water. In a climate changed era, where once-rare storms seem increasingly common and resilient engineering is on the mind of many architects and city officials, one has to wonder, what is this house doing right?
Southern Florida was originally inhabited by Native Americans. But the recorded history of the region string of islands today known as the Florida Keys begins with the Spanish, who colonized the area in the 16th century. The conquistador Juan Ponce de León initially named the archipelago the “Los Martires” islands, which is Spanish for “the martyrs.” Five hundred years later, his reasoning remains unclear, but the name is fittingly foreboding.
Like a broken necklace, the Key’s countless specks of limestone and coral curve west around the tip of Florida. Until 1912, when a railroad was erected, one could only reach Key West, the farthest island in the chain and the location of the Hemingway Home, by boat. Today, the Overseas Highway and its 42 bridges do the job, but only if one deems Margaritaville worth the 113-mile-long drive. Naturally, the narrow passageway generates gridlock even on the laziest afternoons. In the midst of an evacuation, which are called every few summers as mighty Atlantic hurricanes swirl around the exposed islands, traffic grinds to a complete halt.
Despite de León’s early warning, sun-seekers and shipwreck salvagers eventually populated the Keys. In 1850, when construction on Asa Tift’s mansion at 907 Whitehead Street was nearing completion, the census tallied 2,367 residents living on Key West alone. Among them was Tift, who’d made a small fortune recovering the many marine vessels—and their corresponding cargo—shipwrecked off the coast. He decided to use that money to build a tropical palace, across the street from the soaring Key West lighthouse.