It seems that everything about Key West has some interesting story behind it, and the architecture of the houses is no exception. In old town Key West, you can see conch houses that were built by ship builders, shotgun homes that were the cigar makers' cottages, and beautiful large homes from the wealthy days of salvaging from ship wrecks. The conch homes are unique, and they do have a fascinating history.
In the early days of Key West, settlers from the Bahamas built houses out of a mortar made from water, sand, and lime. The lime was produced by burning conch shells, and sometimes the builders used the shells themselves in the construction. Later shipbuilders built these houses from wood, but the name "conch house" remained.
The traditional conch house in Key West has multicultural elements from settlers from the Bahamas, New England, and Africa. The shipbuilding carpenters from New England brought with them the architecture of the New England coast, and others from the Caribbean brought tropical touches. A typical conch house is designed to be energy-efficient for living in a tropical climate. The house rests on piers for air flow which cools the house, window shutters block out the heat while letting the breezes in, roofs have hatches to let out the heat, and porches and verandahs shade the house.
The conch house was built to withstand hurricane-force winds. The seafaring carpenters used tongue and groove wood in building the walls, ceilings, and floors. Every room was constructed as a sturdy cube. It is testimony to this quality construction that these 19th century homes have survived the forces of mother nature these many years.
Many restored conch houses can be seen in Key West today. Our local Conch Train Tour is a fun way to learn more about conch houses and see them up close. You can also do a self-guided walking tour with a brochure provided by the Old Island Restoration Foundation (OIRF), called The Pelican Path. If you want to learn more about the architecture of houses on our island, I recommend the book, The Houses of Key West, by Alex Caemmerer.