Monday, September 28, 2015

Not Keeping Old Town Old

There is  a new page on Facebook called "Keep Old Town Old" which is proposing to recall the Historic Architectural Review Commission members who have supported sundry peculiar developments around Old Town Key West. (LINK to HARC) I am following their drive with interest though I am unwilling to sign the petition as I live in the county and this is an issue for city residents. The main point of the protest at the moment is the approval of plans for a new home on 616 Eaton Street which currently looks like this:
The plans approved by HARC are supposed to end up looking something like this:
Which to most people's way of thinking is a rather too radical change for what is currently the United State's largest wooden historic district. That Old Town was preserved was a bit of a miracle in the first place as the much of it was tumbling down before incomers decided to move into the buildings. The Conchs moved out to enjoy modern conveniences in what was to become New Town, where HARC holds no sway and Old Town was gradually transformed into the highly prized, unique preserve of classic Conch architecture it is today. But the brouhaha over the Eaton Street transformation, the catalyst for the uproar, is not a unique case. There are several new projects ready to build that seem designed to transform the nature of Old Town.

Next we consider the fate of the old Spindrift Motel which no longer exists except as a hole in the ground:

This is where we find modern commercial design tearing down the notion of restrained historic architecture for Old Town. On Simonton Street a new fancy hotel is being built where the funky old Spindrift once stood, suites with pools and all that kind of exclusivity for a better future tourist experience:

Well, you say, one hotel does not a trend make. True enough but consider the construction planned for the Seashell Motel, a  rare low cost (relatively) motel and hostel on South Street. This funky little place is scheduled to be torn down  and replaced with glass and concrete in the modern style. The Citizen reported a year ago that a "new modern hotel" was coming. So far, so good...
But then there is Truman Avenue where the funky old Japanese restaurant once stood, the place known as Kyushu which disappeared the day it burned down:
That funky tin roofed building is currently a hole in the ground:
But not for long because plans have been drawn up to build something that a friend of mine disdainfully describes as being more suitable for trendy South Beach in Miami. I'm not sure where it's influences are rooted, but not Old Town Key West, surely:
Seven Fish restaurant plans to make this carbuncle their new home which I think is upsetting a  few people as Seven Fish has been a highly prized low key gem of a restaurant, serving dinners only, reservations required. They are very popular in their spartan and reserved building on Elizabeth Street. Can you even spot the restaurant in it's current location?
And just up the street from the new Seven Fish we will soon be enjoying a new carbuncle apparently soon to be approved by HARC to replace the funky old bookstore and gym that used to moulder here:
The new building fits into the mould of the new Old Town as envisioned by people who think this is representative of what Key West has always been. HARC staff are quoted as saying that that the mass scale and proportions as well as the textures and materials are harmonious with the rest of Old Town. I guess I am just not smoking the same stuff they are:
I'm not sure how to view all this change though I feel much as some people feel about modern weird buildings in London. I like the proportions and style of the old buildings and I resent modern architects who feel they need to show us what they can do in the middle of our history and monuments. London is a city that has bred modern glass monuments:

Image result for london egg

Compared to the refined dignity of classical St Paul's Cathedral
Which is not to say that everyone feels modern architecture has no place anywhere but I am one of those tedious souls that finds the clash of styles to be tiring. As much in Britain's capital as in the Conch Republic's capital. Pritam Singh in developing the gated community known as Truman Annex created something called the Key West style. And whether or not you enjoy the uniformity you can acknowledge it is coherent and hearkens back to the city's roots:
And in the same way there is a new-ish development at Mile Marker 28 on Little Torch Key, clearly visible from the highway that was once an RV park. Now it's a bunch of homes in the "Key West style" more or less:
When you get up close it is a neat tidy and not terribly vibrant collection of homes but they don't actively look weird or out of place.
So then I ask myself, will Key West benefit from a few, hopefully not too many wild and weird buildings? Would it be better if they were more like these safe designs "in the Key West style?" Is there a middle way? Beats me, I just fear for the future of an Old Town where architects themselves don't seem to pose these questions to themselves or to the public, and we end up seeing stuff that has nothing at all to do with the style of the place that has grown organically in place since 1828. Like the Santa Maria on Simonton Street at South, a grotesque row of glass and cement bubbles totally out of place:
I suppose you could say the process of transformation has been underway for some time and maybe it is  too late. This home is on Simonton Street at Simonton Lane has been around for a while:
How that got into Old Town I'm not sure. Or this hotel on the 600 block of Truman.  I have no idea how this got past HARC:
Aside from the rather garish paint job they do have a roof line "in the Key West style." Perhaps that's good enough. And now the accusation are flying fast and thick around the proposed home on Eaton Street with supporters being described as nothing more than shills for the owners, threats of lawsuits and so on and so forth. My answer to all that is my favorite example of renovation in the perfect Key West style, on Southard Street. 
As it was, so it is, nicely done, no controversy and a home worthy of anyone who wants to take pride in their large Key West home "in the Key West style." Unfortunately not everyone has figured it out.