Today’s Key West, which has retained a lot of its village charm despite incursions by chain stores and cruise ship daytrippers, is in many ways a David Wolkowsky production.
“We often say whatever you like about Key West can be put on his doorstep because that’s really true,” said Claude Reams, who has known Wolkowsky since 1977 when Reams and partner Joe Alan Carr opened the Assortment men’s store in the Pier House. “We don’t think David gets his due.”
Wolkowsky was both builder and preservationist back when Florida had little sense of its own history, notes Miami historian Paul George: “He was into preservation before preservation was cool.”
And then there’s his other island.
He bought Ballast Key in the mid ’70s, a scrubby rock outcropping in the Key West National Wildlife Refuge, and hatched a crazy-sounding plan to build his masterpiece, a lighthouse-inspired structure that became the southernmost private home in the United States. It required a barge, a desalinization plant and years of tenacity but these days an invite on the eight-mile boat ride out to “David’s island” is proof you’ve made it by Key West standards.
And what a guest list it has been, at both island and hotel. Because Wolkowsky’s fascination with the physical landscape is equaled by his love of the arts, he has hosted luminaries like Leonard Bernstein, Rudolf Nureyev and Lillian Hellman. Tennessee Williams was a frequent guest at Ballast Key, where he tried his hand at painting, including a haunting portrait of Wolkowsky, inscribed with the words: “It’s the eyes.” And Capote, the famously erratic writer of In Cold Blood, stayed in a Key West trailer owned by Wolkowsky and gave his host a manuscript during a middle-of-the-night departure that, decades later, would spark a bit of a literary mystery.
Every January, during the Key West Literary Seminar, Wolkowsky — who bought Greta Garbo’s letters after she died, even though he met her just once — throws a cocktail party for the authors in his book- and art-stuffed penthouse. Guests might include seven poet laureates — and the bartender from around the corner.
After this year’s event, William Gibson, author of Neuromancer and originator of the term “cyberspace,” tweeted: “Met the amazing David Wolkowsky at his drinks party last night. Hosted in dreamlike interstitial town house atop a onetime Kress dime store.”
Key West to Miami to Philly and back
Though Wolkowsky was born in Key West, where his grandfather opened a store in the 1880s, the family moved to Miami when he was a child. His sister, musician Ruth Greenfield, eventually founded what is believed to be the first interracial arts academy in Florida. But Wolkowsky’s creativity was focused on design. After attending the University of Pennsylvania, he made a name and a fortune for himself in Philadelphia, restoring buildings, until his father died and he returned to Key West in 1962. A plan to retire at 42 lasted barely a year: He bought the land for the Pier House and never looked back.
But there is one thing from the past that nags at him. About 15 years ago, the original manuscript Capote gave him during that abrupt nighttime departure disappeared from his penthouse — and the only suspects were friends who had stayed in the apartment at his invitation.