Florida Keys

‘Mr. Key West’ is on his way to having the island he owns named after him

How David Wolkowsky became Mr. Key West

David Wolkowsky is an American developer from Key West, Florida. Wolkowsky grew up in Key West and Miami and received his degree from the University of Pennsylvania. After college, he began to restore buildings in the inner city of Philadelphia.
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David Wolkowsky is an American developer from Key West, Florida. Wolkowsky grew up in Key West and Miami and received his degree from the University of Pennsylvania. After college, he began to restore buildings in the inner city of Philadelphia.

It’s already his island, the one about 8 1/2 miles off Key West he bought in 1974.

But David Wolkowsky, the legendary developer, visionary and philanthropist known as “Mr. Key West,” wants Ballast Key to carry his full name.

Wolkowsky, who was born in Key West in 1919, won’t live to see the island named after him. The federal application to rename Ballast Key after a person isn’t considered until five years after the person’s death. He will turn 99 next week.

On Wednesday in Key West, Monroe county commissioners voted 4-1 to support the renaming of Ballast Key to David Wolkowsky Key, as the man himself watched from his wheelchair.

The U.S. Board on Geographic Names will have the final say.

Wolkowsky’s accomplishments were ticked off Wednesday by his assistants. Wolkowsky did not speak before the commission.

“I wanted to see the commission en masse,” Wolkowsky said later.

“I don’t think we would have nearly the robust tourist economy we have if not for his vision decades ago,” said Commissioner Heather Carruthers, of Key West, who sponsored the item.

Only Commissioner Sylvia Murphy, of Key Largo, voted against it.

“I simply have never been comfortable naming anything after a person so I have to vote no,” Murphy said, adding she agrees with every word of praise she’s heard about Wolkowsky.

Wolkowsky was born in Key West, where his grandfather opened a store in the 1880s, but the family moved to Miami when he was a child.

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.

Wolkowsky built the Pier House and helped redevelop and restore much of Duval Street, Mallory Square, Sloppy Joe’s and the Kress Building on Duval Street, along with homes and buildings and a downtown penthouse for himself.

The island is his masterpiece — the southernmost private home in the United States that he built out of rough terrain.

“I’ve spent a lot of my life pruning. Pruning,” he told reporters Wednesday in Key West.

Wolkowsky has entertained luminaries in Key West, with a lengthy and impressive guest list: Margaret Thatcher, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, the Rockefellers and the Bee Gees. The James Bond film “License to Kill” was filmed on Ballast Key.

On the island, he hosted visitors of note, including British Prime Minister Edward Heath, Leonard Bernstein and Jimmy Buffett, who as a young singer performed at the Pier House.

Commissioner Danny Kolhage, of Key West, said he has reservations about renaming areas with historical significance but decided to support this one out of respect for Wolkowsky.

“But I hope we don’t make a habit of it in the future,” Kolhage said. Commissioner George Neugent also voted yes, along with County Mayor David Rice.

Rice told Wolkowsky: “Don’t let us do that too soon, OK?”

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