Awarded for Excellence in Preservation & Restoration in Historic Key West

As I mentioned in my previous blog, OIRF sent a team of volunteers to our home for two nights in late December for the Key West historic home tour. It was because of this tour that we ended up applying for a historic preservation award in 2017.

Key West Remodel
Finishing touches prior to the historic house tour.

During the tour, one of the docents complimented us on the massive remodel that we had recently completed in late 2016. We were standing in the new kitchen as  I showed her some before & after photos of our work. She knew that my wife had been the architect behind the 6-month renovation, and as we looked at photos together, I explained the changes we had made to this historic home. Are you going to apply for the preservation award? The ceramic star? she asked me.

Preservation Ceramic Star Award
The Ceramic Star Preservation Award

The star that she referred to is an honor that is awarded by the Historic Florida Keys Foundation (HFKF). Since 1981, the HFKF has been giving out awards that recognize excellence for historic preservation, restoration, and rehabilitation. The criteria for judging the award applicants is based on the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation. There have been numerous award applicants over the years, but only the most exemplary preservation or restoration projects earn the ceramic star. According to the HFKF, the ceramic star represents the highest level of award, and the hallmark of the Preservation Awards Program. The star represents the tie-rod, which strengthens a structure, and thus symbolized the strength of historic preservation in Key West.

Back in the kitchen, I left the docent alone so she could prepare for the tour, and for the rest of the evening I continued to think about the words I had heard earlier. Are you going to apply for the preservation award?

So over the next few days Heather & I tossed around the idea of applying for a preservation award. When I went to the HFKF’s website, I found out that the applications were due in mid-January. That didn’t leave us much time, but we decided to go for it.

The application is available on their website and the projects are awarded based on the Standards for Rehabilitation. The bulk of the application is based on several questions, including some of the following:  What is the history of the property? What features contribute to the historic character of the property? How have those features been maintained?

The first question asks about the history of the property. We were in luck, because like many homes in Old Town, our house has a ton of history. We wanted to demonstrate that, as the owners of the house, we truly cared for and wanted to celebrate the home’s unique history. As the architect, Heather was extremely knowledgable about the nuts and bolts of the project. Her answers to the questions were thorough and well-informed.


Including the before & after photos, the application ended up being just under 10 pages long. Crossing our fingers, we sealed the envelope and put it in the mail to the HFKF. We knew that the panel of judges would not conduct their site visits until early February, so we had a few weeks to wait.

On February 10th, a letter arrived in our mail box from the Historic Florida Keys Foundation. We opened it together, reading nervously and quickly scanning for anything mentioning an award. About half-way down the letter, in bold lettering, we were told that all of our hard work was being rewarded. It read:

I am happy to inform you that you have been selected to win a Star and Certificate of Excellence for Preservation and Restoration at 307 Truman Avenue.

Award Ceremony
Heather Korth (architect) & Thom Toler (Tomca Kier Construction) with their award certificates.

As well, we were invited to the awards presentation and reception at the Harry S. Truman Little White House, where both Heather and our general contractor, Thom Toler, would be recognized for the success of our project. At the presentation, we were joined by our friends Thom & Camille Toler, as well as our close friend & realtor  John Parce, who was instrumental in helping us purchase this home in late 2015.

As the architect and builder, Heather & Thom each received a certificate of excellence. As the homeowners, Heather & I left the presentation with our own certificate of excellence and a ceramic star. The star will be placed on the front of our home for all to see, and as a constant reminder of not just all the hard work and effort that went into the remodel, but as a symbol of the teamwork that took place over the past 18 months. From Heather’s first sketches, to our meetings with HARC and The City of Key West, to the 6 months that Tomca Kier Construction spent working on our home, the ceramic star award is for everyone who contributed to the success of our historic preservation and restoration project in Key West.

If you’d like to learn more about the Preservation Awards, the history of the Historic Florida Keys Foundation, and how they operate today, check out this very informative blog, published recently by John Parce.

Participating in the 57th Annual Key West Historic House Tour

In April of 2016 we began construction on a significant remodel to our old Key West home. Our home first appears on a very old hand-drawn map of Key West from 1884. It’s our best guess that the home was constructed shortly prior to the drawing of that 1884 map. While the home was probably well-cared for during its first 100 years of existence, it suffered a bit of neglect over the last 40 years and our intent was to bring it back to its former glory. Fortunately, my wife is an architect and we spent several months creating a design to replace an existing, non-historic shed roof & awning with a new, full-height sawtooth roof that would be a more appropriate historic design that what the home exhibited when we purchased it.

Key West 1884 Map
Closeup from the historic hand-drawn map from 1884.

Many months prior to beginning construction in 2016, we sat down with Key West’s Historic Architecture Review Commission (HARC) in order to secure their approval on our remodel project. We met with HARC many times in 2015 in order to ensure that our project followed HARC guidelines so that we could receive their approval and the necessary receipt of a Certificate of Appropriateness in order to officially break ground.

Construction began on April 1st of 2016 with the goal of finishing and passing our final inspection prior to the end of the year. In July, as the project was well underway, we received a letter from Teri Beard of Key West’s Old Island Restoration Foundation. In the letter, Teri wrote, I am writing you because your home on Truman Ave. has been nominated to be on our 2016-17 house tour. Your lovely home would be a welcomed addition on our tour.

It was a pleasure to receive the letter from OIRF, and we were excited to be offered the opportunity to be a part of the historic home tours. But at the time we received the letter, our poor old house and yard had been gutted, with no sign of completion in sight. The  historic tours would begin in December, and we weren’t 100% sure we’d be done with the remodel by then.

July Construction
The remnants of our back yard during construction.

Teri went on to write, Old Island Restoration Foundation was founded in 1960 and has been instrumental since that time in preserving the unique architecture and cultural heritage of Key West. The popular House Tour series is the most dependable source of funds for continuing the work of OIRF. These very successful events make it possible for us to maintain the “Oldest House” in Key West, to award scholarships to deserving college-bound Key West High School seniors, and provide funds to help those who cannot afford to preserve their own historic residences.

Even though our remodel had taken on a life of its own, we decided to accept OIRF’s invitation and offer up our home for the December, 2016 house tour. Our thinking was that if we had a goal for completion (in this case, the date of the tour), then maybe that would help us get focused on not only completing the remodel, but on finishing all the little things we’d had on our to-do list for the last year or so…

Fast forward a few months. We completed the remodel and passed our final inspection in October. This gave us about 8 weeks to put the finishing touches on the house in preparation for the house tour. We were told that most of the homes on the December tour would be decorated for the holidays, so we decided to start putting up some Christmas decorations. We finished painting the inside, put up some new artwork, purchased some interior accessories and throw pillows, and began to stage the house for the tour.

Shortly before the tour, Pat Cummings (from OIRF) contacted me to arrange for her and a few colleagues to check out the house in person and work out the logistics. They wanted to plan out the pathway through the house for the tour and the placement of docents. After that, she wrote the docent script that would be used by the guides during the tour. The script was thorough, including everything from the history of the home to the updated information on our completed remodel. She even went so far as to include descriptions of our front porch, rear deck, and swimming pool. She dug deep into the home’s history, discovering that four members of the Arnold family lived here in the 1890s. She even discovered that Mr. Arnold was a civilian laborer employed by the Navy.

Because the tour is a major fundraiser for OIRF, it is heavily publicized in the local media. The December tour, including a brief description of our home, was advertised in several places, including OIRF’s website and both the Key West Citizen and the Florida Keys  News.

A few hours prior to the beginning of the historic house tour, a team of docents arrived at our home and began to set up. While a few volunteers set up their table and collected tickets on the sidewalk in front of the house, the rest positioned themselves strategically throughout the home and prepared for the tour. We left the house to the volunteers from OIRF and returned toward the end as the tour was winding down. We were told that over the course of two nights, over 500 people came to see our home. It was an enormous honor for us to be able to share our historic remodel with over 500 visitors during the tour. As an added bonus, OIRF sent us a floral arrangement and a metal house plaque signifying that we were a part of the 57th Annual Key West House Tour. The plaque is displayed on a shelf in the living room of our home for all to see.

Key West Historic House
House plaque from the Old Island Restoration Foundation.

On the afternoon of the first tour, as the volunteers were getting organized, one of the volunteers was complimenting us on our remodel project when she asked if we were going to apply for the annual Historic Preservation award. If you’ve spent any time wandering the neighborhoods of Old Town, you may have seen the Ceramic Star award plaque displayed on the front of an historic home. We learned that this star symbolizes the tie rod, which strengthens a structure, and represents the strength of historic preservation in Key West.

We were vaguely aware of the Ceramic Star award, but hadn’t considered applying for a preservation award. After all, wasn’t an award like that reserved for the biggest projects with the most important architects? Not at all, we were told. As a matter of fact, she said, you should definitely apply for it. So over the next few days we thought about applying for the prestigious Ceramic Star preservation award. The only problem was that the deadline was just a few days away…

Our Key West Remodel – Before & After

Originally slated to start construction on April 1st of this year, work ended up being delayed about a month due to a variety of factors, none of which involved our contractor. Now, roughly 20 weeks later, we are nearing completion on our Key West remodel.

As I’ve mentioned before, roughly 600 square feet of our 1,050 square foot home dates back to before 1889. This image shows our home on the Sanborn Fire Map for Old Town, Key West. This 1889 map is the oldest one for Old Town, making our home at least 127 yeas old, but in all likelihood it’s much older than that.

1889 Sanborn Fire Map
In 1889, our address was 406 Division.

Considering the age of the home, it was in desperate need of some work. After 20 weeks of construction and improvements, our Key West house is ready to last another 127 years.

Below are a few more before & after photos of our construction project – some you may have seen, but most are new.

Ancient coral piers supporting the home. Only gravity kept the house sitting on these foundation piers.
New concrete foundation piers that are structurally connected to the house.
kitchen before1
The kitchen before the remodel. Notice the low ceiling, wood floors, and wallpaper. You can also see the original blue awning that hung over the rear deck.
kitchen after2
Tile floors replaced the old wood floor in the new kitchen. A new 15′ ceiling gave us room to add a transom window, new lighting, and a new ceiling fan. The new door & windows are impact-rated and much more energy efficient.
The original master bathroom included a jacuzzi tub that didn’t work. Aside from being dated and in need of an update, the layout needed improvement as well.
masterbath - after
The new master bathroom. A different layout makes this space feel larger than before and the 40″ x 40″ glass shower is much larger than normal.
This photo shows the back yard as it was when we purchased the home in 2015. The low blue awning felt slightly claustrophobic and leaked during the rain. The yellow shed (in the background) was decaying and unusable. Different wood decks had been added over the years. Also notice the old wooden fence.
The new back yard. The blue awning is replaced by a new, permanent, 15′ tall ceiling complete with outdoor lighting and ceiling fans. The decaying shed is replaced by more deck space and the the old wooden deck is replaced with brand new Azek decking that wraps around the entire back yard. Also notice the brand new wood fence.
The stained original water feature. Notice the three small nozzles in the middle – that was the previous “waterfall”.
pool - after
We shortened the height of the waterfall wall, making the pool feel a bit larger. We also added glass tiles, a new waterfall, and a new quiet, energy-efficient pool filter. Also notice the new fence.
back yard1 - before
Another view of the back yard, taken from where the shed used to be. You can’t see it, but the pool is in the background.
backyard1 - after
Not quite the same view, but this photo is also taken from where the shed used to be. The pool is in the background.
new backyard1
Finally…the new back yard. It looks even better in person.

After 20 weeks up construction, we’re finally getting ready to call this home. We are so pleased that we can share our home with you during the year. We’ve already welcomed several vacation renters to our home in Key West, and we’ve got a few more on the calendar for 2017. For those of you who are planning on staying in our  vacation home in 2017 and beyond…welcome to Key West!

Our Key West Remodel: Starting to See Progress

307 Truman Ave. circa 1965. This home first appears on the Sanborn Fire Maps in 1889, making it over 125 years old.

Having started this journey back in September of 2015, we can rest a bit easier now that we are seeing some signs of progress. Our remodel plans included adding a third sawtooth addition to the rear of the home, remodeling the kitchen & master bath, replacing both the front porch and the backyard deck, replacing the decaying fences that surround our property, and even a complete overhaul of the existing foundation. Considering that roughly 70% of our home is well over 100 years old, we really haven’t run into any snags or hiccups since we started construction 15 weeks ago. We’re finally at the point where we can begin to share some before & after photos. Let us know what you think!

The kitchen lies in the rear of the house and faces the back yard. It’s the main entrance to the rear deck and pool, and also the focal point of the interior space. It was an addition to the historic main part of the house that was probably constructed sometime between 1940 and 1960. The irony of this “new addition” is that it was the most poorly constructed part of the house. In the original part of the house, the round pegs can still be seen holding the original mortise and tenon joinery together. Although the original studs and joists have been reinforced many times over the last 100+ years, the quality of the original woodwork is still visible. Unlike this historic carpentry, the kitchen addition was built with sloping floors, uneven walls, and a general feeling that the builders didn’t have quite the same skill-set as their forefathers.

The Kitchen: The goal was to add a third sawtooth roof to the rear of the house. The peak of this third roofline would be half inside and half outside, drastically increasing the ceiling height both inside the kitchen, and outside over our new deck. We raised the ceiling about 7 feet and added a transom window above the door. We also added the collar ties that can be seen extending through the wall above the new transom window. We leveled the sloping wood floor and added a subfloor and new tile. Here’s both the before and after photo:

kitchen before1
Before:  The original kitchen addition was probably added somewhere around 1950, but updated within the last 10 years. Through the window, you can see the blue awning that used to cover the back yard deck.
kitchen after2
After:  Here’s the entire updated kitchen space. The top of the image is distorted slightly due to the panorama shot.
kitchen remodel1
Cabinets & appliance removed. The new windows and door will be impact rated in order to better protect against severe storm damage. You could see daylight where the floor meets the wall (behind the plumbing). There was a large gap due to the uneven floor.
kitchen remodel3
Removing the existing floors and installing the engineered lam beams for badly needed structural support.
kitchen remodel5
For several weeks, this was the path to our only bathroom.
kitchen remodel2
Extending the height of the new kitchen wall. You can see the framing for the new transom window. We’ll get much-needed insulation, which didn’t exist in the walls before.
kitchen remodel4
Subfloor has been added and new walls are close to completion.
kitchen remodel7
New kitchen tile is done. Cabinets are starting to go back.
kitchen remodel6.jpg
Drywall and electrical are almost done.
kitchen after1
The completed kitchen. The new collar ties extend through the wall to the outside, above the new transom window. We were able to keep our original cabinets and appliances. A new countertop and new tile floors were also added.
kitchen after3
All done except for the ceiling fan.

kitchen after4

kitchen after2.JPG
The final product.

Next Time: Before & After Photos of the New Covered Deck

The Mystery of the Coral Piers

If you didn’t get a chance to read my last post about our slightly unusual foundation piers, you can check it out here. But to summarize briefly – our old Key West home has been resting on these stone foundation piers for over 100 years (see the photo below). The only thing keeping our house sitting on these piers is gravity – the house is not connected to them whatsoever. We’ve been told by a handful of Key West locals that these stone piers are actually made of coral, and are quite common in Key West. But I was having a difficult time finding information about them. I was trying to find out where they came from, how long they were used this way, and what they’re actually made of.

Two of the foundation piers supporting our home.

Last year I went to the Key West Public Library to research the age of our home. It was there that I was introduced to Tom Hambright, the local expert who works in their History Collection. Since I was having trouble finding info online, I went back to the library to pick Tom’s brain about our foundation piers.

I showed Tom a photo (see below) and he was quick to suggest that they probably aren’t coral, but something called Miami oolite, a variety of limestone. According to Tom, stone like this was mined in a quarry somewhere in the Upper Keys a long time ago. He also thought that this type of stone was mined in quarries on the mainland, and could have been shipped down to the Lower Keys from somewhere around the Miami area.

Foundation piers after they were removed from under the house.

I had never heard of Miami oolite, so upon returning home I did quick online search and hit the jackpot. Many thanks to Mr. Hambright for pointing me in the right direction. As I read about Miami oolite and its history in the Keys, many of the missing pieces started to come together.

I quickly found a series of articles online titled History and Architecture of Old Key West. One article was written by Mr. Hambright himself. In another, titled Architecture of Key West, author George Born describes how Miami oolite came to be used as foundation piers under Key West homes. According to Mr. Born, The region’s natural resources offered limited building materials. South Florida slash pine — Dade County pine — proved to be hard and resistant to decay, but lumbering eventually depleted supply. Soon, builders employed other Southern woods, such as yellow pine, cypress, and cedar. Miami oolite, the bedrock of the Lower Keys, saw use mainly as foundation piers — and only rarely as building stone for whole structures.

I was pleased to stumble across Michael Conchscooter’s blog, Key West Diary. In 2010 he wrote about the Oolite Highway, and begins his blog by stating that Oolite is found in certain parts of the world and the Lower Keys is one of those places. His wasn’t the first site I came across that suggested that oolite is only found in the Lower Keys. Tom Hambright suggested that oolite like this was quarried on the mainland, but the more I’ve read, it seems pretty likely that the oolite supporting my house probably came from the Lower Keys. The piers that were removed from under my house are extremely heavy and it takes at least two people to lift a single block. Considering their weight, it seems likely that the original home builders wouldn’t have wanted to transport these very far, especially 150 years ago. I wouldn’t be surprised if these stones came from Key West somewhere.

A corner pier, visible once the siding and lattice skirting was removed.

My continued research brought me to the NOAA’s website about the Florida Keys where they state that, During the last ice age [the] sea level dropped, exposing the ancient coral reefs and sand bars which became fossilized over time to form the rock that makes up the [Florida Keys] today. The two dominate rock formations in the Keys are Key Largo Limestone and Miami Oolite.

So what exactly is Miami oolite? Is it coral, as I’ve been told my numerous people? Based on what I’ve read (and please correct me if I’m wrong), it’s my understanding that the term coral is a general term used to describe the fossilized rock that forms the present-day Keys. Put simply, the oolite stones that were used as foundation piers under my house are a form of fossilized coral.

Whether you call them coral or oolite, it’s fascinating that these fossilized rocks has been the foundation of my home for almost 150 years. Based on what I’ve read online, it seems clear that the oolite under my house was mostly found in the Lower Keys. It’s probable that it was mined in Key West, and may have even been dug from the ground right where we live.

Starting Construction on Our 127 Year Old Key West House


Street View – Photo Taken in November, 2015

If you strolled by our home on your way to the Key West Lighthouse, you’d never guess that there was a mystery lurking behind that white picket fence. If it weren’t for the construction project we started back in April, we never would have pursued it further, and ultimately, never would have bothered to find out more about those strange stone blocks that were supporting our historic house in Old Town. But more on that later…

Thanks to Heather and her amazing ability (her words) to see the potential that our historic home had to offer, we decided to bite the bullet and make some renovations to our Key West home. This photo (below) was taken around 1965 and shows the clean roof lines of two metal gable roofs. The is most-likely the original structure and it dates all the way back to 1889 on the Sanborn Fire Maps. Considering that 1889 is as far back as the maps go, it’s likely that this house was built prior to that, meaning part of our home could be anywhere from 127 – 150 years old…or more.

Street View – Photo Taken Circa 1965

A non-historic rear roof addition (not seen in this photo) was added much later in this home’s life. Typical to the architecture of the time, this later addition failed to capture the scale and historic character of the original home. With a sloped shed roof and worn blue canvas awning, both the rear of the home and the backyard deck felt dark and slightly claustrophobic. Our first thought was to remove the blue awning and build a taller, permanent shade structure in its place. This new structure would be taller than the roofline, provide us with better protection from the rain, and include electricity so we could install outdoor ceiling fans and lighting.

Undated Rear Addition: Sloped Roof & Canvas Awning Over the Back Deck – Photo Taken in November, 2015

But this original idea had its flaws – while being an enormous upgrade to the simple canvas awning, it looked out of place on paper and still didn’t fit well with the historic character of the property. Fortunately, Heather is a brilliant architect (my words) with an engineering background and she decided to use her skills to come up with a creative, more historically appropriate design (see the before/after renderings below).

Rendering of Our Home in its Current State – Roof Addition and Awning Over Rear Deck
new view - edit
Rendering of the Final Design – The awning and rear sloped roof are replaced with a third gable roof

In an attempt to be consistent with the historic fabric of the house, she decided to replace the existing non-historic shed roof & awning with a full, matching gable roof that offers us higher ceilings, more headroom, and a permanent outdoor shade structure. This new shade structure will be complete with outdoor lighting & ceiling fans and it replaces the low-hung awning with almost six more feet of ceiling height. The end result is a true triple-sawtooth that is a much more appropriate design than what the house currently exhibits, and is also much more typical of Key West’s architectural style.

However, in order for all this work to begin, we first had to undertake Phase I of the renovation: updating the existing foundation of our house. And this leads me back to those mysterious stone blocks that have been supporting our old house for the last 100+ years (see photo below).

Two of the Foundation Piers Supporting Our Home

As you can see in the above photo, we have these stone blocks supporting our house. There are about 25 of them in total. They are mostly found around the perimeter, but there are a few under the interior of the house as well.  Here’s a closeup:

A Corner Pier Near the Front of the House

We were told that they are made of coral, and that the use of these coral foundation piers was quite common in the Florida Keys during the later part of the 19th century. However, after spending a few hours searching for more info about them online, I was stumped – I couldn’t find any information about them at all. A Google search for “historic coral piers” literally yields one single result – a blog about another home in Key West, not far from ours.

After spending a few hours searching online (and spinning my wheels), I figured that I was missing something. Fortunately, I knew where to start. I rode my bike over to the Key West Public Library to speak to a local expert in their History Collection. His name is Tom Hambright and I was certain that if anyone could point me in the right direction, he could. I wasn’t disappointed…

Next Time: The Mystery of the Coral Piers