Florida Keys

Key West saves an 1880s-era diesel plant from the wrecking ball

The dilapidated old diesel plant in Key West is shown on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019.
The dilapidated old diesel plant in Key West is shown on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019. FLKeysNews.com

It looks like the definition of neglect: a mess of broken windows, gap-toothed roofing and graffiti-coated brick walls.

And if you think that’s bad, you should see the inside.

But history won’t forget the one-time diesel plant that delivered electricity to Key West starting in 1890 and ending in the 1960s.

A Key West nonprofit will redevelop the crumbling former diesel plant into an interactive museum that features a microbrewery and restaurant. The goal of the museum is, in part, to reflect the importance of the historically black neighborhood of Bahama Village, which is largely gentrified and infused with art galleries and restaurants.

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Graffiti covers one wall of the old diesel plant on Fort Street in Key West on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2019. Gwen Filosa FLKeysNews.com

A year ago this month, most of the plant was ordered demolished by the city building official, given its dilapidated condition.

But this month, city leaders approved giving a 20-year property lease to the Key West Art and Historical Society, the only group that submitted an application for redoing the former Keys Energy Plant the utility gave the city.

The decades-long neglected collection of four connected one-story brick buildings is located at 101 Geraldine St., 709 Fort St. and 100 Angela St. next-door to the city’s new Truman Waterfront Park.

The nonprofit’s leaders say the overall cost is estimated at $10 million to $15 million.

“There’s a ton of work that has to be done,” said Michael Gieda, executive director of KWAHS. “It’s been sitting vacant for decades. We’re actually starting the meeting process with architects next week. Our priority right now is to stabilize and weatherize the building.”

That work, which includes fixing structural problems and putting a roof over one building, is estimated to cost $4 million. Gieda said the nonprofit will launch a capital campaign at some point for fundraising, seek out grants and funding from the Monroe County Tourist Development Council.

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The old electric plant was abandoned in the 1960s, and hasn’t been used since. David Salay

Gieda added that the nonprofit is in the business of running museums and they’ll find a partner to run the restaurant and microbrewery as a revenue source for the project.

The project is tentatively named the DIESEL Plant museum. DIESEL stands for (Discovery, Industry, Engineering, Science, Experience and Learning.

KWAHS is a veteran of rehabbing historic gems on the island, such as the Custom House, Fort East Martello, and the Key West Lighthouse and Keeper’s Quarters museums, which get about 150,000 visitors annually.

The nonprofit’s plans also include incorporating the rich history of Bahama Village,

“Obviously with the building being located in Bahama Village, one of the first parts in the entrance to the interactive museum will be discussing the history of the location and also the history of the building,” Gieda told city commissioners at their Feb. 20 meeting. “You can’t really talk about the history of Key West without the social narratives.”

The commission, with little discussion, voted 6-0 in favor of the project. Commissioner Jimmy Weekley was absent.

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Demolishing part of the old electric plant would cost the city $600,000. David Salay

Bryan Green, a local philanthropist and chairman of the city’s Historic Architectural Review Commission, reminded city commissioners that half of the plant was recommended for demolition before HARC made a presentation to them that they ought to be looking for uses and a workshop was held.

“This is absolutely a classic case in which the process has worked,” Green said. “The end result is something I think we ought to be very proud and pleased about.”

Gwen Filosa covers Key West and the Lower Florida Keys for FLKeysNews.com and the Miami Herald and lives in Key West. She was part of the staff at the New Orleans Times-Picayune that in 2005 won two Pulitzer Prizes for coverage of Hurricane Katrina. She graduated from Indiana University.
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