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In Key West’s historic Old Town, homes yielding to neglect

Key West has famously strict rules for buildings in its historic district. Even painting the shutters requires approval from a historic architecture commission. Major renovations get detailed attention. The aim: preservation of treasured old buildings.

So it came as a surprise to many when the city itself presented a list of five homes in Old Town, as the historic district is called, that were in such bad shape that they could be demolished.

One of the homes on the list is a small, unoccupied cottage on Whitehead Street, less than two blocks from the Ernest Hemingway Home. Ron Wampler, the city’s chief building official, added it to the list earlier this year.

“I had parked a block away and I was on my way to an inspection and I walked by it and did a double-take and started walking around it, determining if I should do anything,” he said.

“The more I looked at it, I saw some holes in the roof where I knew water was entering it,” he said. “It’s not on much of a foundation. I posted it that day unsafe and not fit for habitation.”

Declaring the homes unsafe for human habitation takes them out of the purview of the Historic Architecture Review Commission, said Wampler, who hoped that bringing the five homes to the board’s attention would spur efforts to restore them.

Old Town is famous for its wooden houses. Most of them are from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During the 1970s, people started fixing them up, and the area became a historic district.

They range from the mansions of millionaires to the simple cottages once occupied by the city’s cigar makers. Now even the shabby ones are worth serious money. However, sometimes owners or prospective buyers want to tear down the old houses and build new ones since new construction is less expensive. But the the preservation rules prevent them from doing do.

Michael Miller, an architect who chairs the board, is concerned that the city’s action in cases like this could provide a loophole that would let property owners pursue “demolition by neglect,” he said.

“It’s kind of a very sly way that an individual homeowner can do what developers have done forever, which is to tear the building down and then there’s nothing to argue about,” Miller said. “The city has no mechanism to make these folks fix the houses.”

The historic architecture commission usually requires that restorations retain the façade and appearance of the historic home, although the rules don’t extend to the interior. But they don’t want new construction to be replicas.

“Once they’re torn down, they’re gone forever, and then whatever goes up would be something new,” Miller said. “Could be a trailer, could be a prefabricated house, could be a beautiful new house, could be a pretty ugly house, could be a cheap house. But that part of the history of that neighborhood is gone.”

Four out of five of the homes were unoccupied at the time of their listing. The fifth was occupied until the city ordered the inhabitants out in February.

The house is in foreclosure, but James and Kim Chapman have returned almost every day to sit in the yard and greet their former neighbors, “just try to get our last looks and just remember the days when we had fun and cookouts and stuff here. And raised our children here,” Kim Chapman said. “It’s going to be hard.”

Wampler said he has contacted all of property owners, and believes most of them will be restored. All but the one on Whitehead Street. That building is too far gone, he said.

“It’s just a shame it wasn’t given a little more love and attention 20 or 30 years ago,” he said. “It wouldn’t be in this shape.”