KEY WEST -- The land wasn’t much to look at 50 years ago, a beat-up bit of coastline in a run-down island town, not even a beach to recommend it. But David Wolkowsky, the urbane, Panama-hatted visionary of modern-day Key West, took one look and thought: chic hotel.
It was vintage Wolkowsky. A burst of inspiration greeted by a lot of head-shaking followed by against-the-odds success. The 1968 opening of his Pier House hotel, with its air of “elegant inefficiency,” as writer and friend Truman Capote put it, is now widely considered the turning point in Key West’s transformation from washed-up military outpost to funky tourist destination.
And it was a defining moment for Wolkowsky. For the next five decades, he would put his unconventional stamp on the island where he was born. Not so much the honky-tonk tourist side, though that was part of it, but the other Key West, the place where front porches serve as art installations, bike bells replace car horns and night-blooming flowers perfume the air with mystery.
“When I look at things, I’m always desperately looking for beauty,” says Wolkowsky, who will turn 93 this month. “But I don’t like the word beauty — do you? I’m looking for something a little offbeat.”
Even in a town that prides itself on local eccentrics, Wolkowsky is legendary. A millionaire who used to drive the streets in a vintage Rolls Royce or a golf cart, he pals around with famous writers and artists, salvages historic buildings and owns the only private island south of Key West, where he built an architectural marvel of a house. Yet he has managed to remain surprisingly low-profile outside the oddball island that once declared itself the Conch Republic and tried to secede from the U.S.
“He’s very quiet about it, but he’s Mr. Key West. He really is,’’ says best-selling author Judy Blume, of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret fame. She and her husband bought a house in Key West in large part because of Wolkowsky.
“He took us in and we never wanted to leave… There’s nobody else like David. It’s his love of life, his joie de vivre, his enthusiasm. It’s his humor, his sly humor. And sure, it’s his history. Who wouldn’t be enthralled by his history?”
When man and island are a match
In Wolkowsky’s world, there is really just one rule: Make it interesting. “It’s like a little bomb that excites me that kind of explodes in my mind,” he says. “It’s an excitement. I’m always looking for the exciting view… I’m always looking for something that has a sense of originality.”
In that sense, man and island couldn’t have been better matched. Wolkowsky has found enough offbeat beauty in Key West’s less than six square miles to keep him interested for five decades.
That’s especially true of the weathered buildings that he has restored, renovated and sometimes relocated, a list so long he has lost count. But a few stand out: Ernest Hemingway’s original watering hole, Capt. Tony’s Saloon, a landmark structure Wolkowsky and his sisters inherited from their father. The Kress building, an old dime store now home to both Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville Cafe and a rooftop penthouse Wolkowsky built for himself. The two dozen U.S. Navy surplus buildings he moved by flatbed truck and transformed into shops near the Mallory Square docks.