- Written by Patti Lavell
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Key West research suggests William Curry lived a charmed life. When he stepped off the gangplank onto the coral shores of Key West, he was a penniless immigrant from the Bahamas. A new career as a wrecker amassed such wealth that over the course of a decade or so, he built and owned at least eight mansions on the island and became Florida’s first millionaire. His daughters were wed to wealthy men who shared his passion for elegantly grand homes.
Curry’s daughter, Florida Euphemia, married Dr. Vining Harris who served as an assistant surgeon in the Confederate States Navy. In 1896, for a mere $250,000, they built a spectacular Queen Anne Victorian style home at 1400 Duval Street, on the corner of Duval and South Streets – with some financial assistance from Florida’s wealthy daddy. $250,000 is 1896 equates to roughly $6.7 million in today’s dollars. Too bad wrecking is no longer an employment opportunity because I’d be the first in line.
The Harris’ took great pride in their home and built it with the best materials available, with a great deal of attention toward resistance to hurricanes. Mrs. Harris wanted nothing but the best and was able to engage Thomas Edison to oversee the design and installation of electric throughout the home, which at that time, was quite a novelty.
Although the Harris’ enjoyed hosting prominent guests, they valued their privacy even more than their social status, so the home was built with only one bedroom. While it may have been lacking in bedrooms, it had beautifully appointed public rooms, balconies and stained glass windows. An equally splendid home was constructed adjacent to the Harris’ to accommodate overnight guests. I wish we had a set-up like that because when you live in the beautiful Florida Keys, house guests appear all year long.
During the Prohibition years, the home served a speakeasy to a most receptive clientele. The first floor was used as an innocent family-style restaurant while the second floor was used for gambling. The third floor was reserved for socializing, if you get my drift. If those walls could talk.
The Ramos family purchased the home and converted it to a Cuban Café named the Café Cayo Hueso. Locals and tourists alike flocked to the café for sexy cocktails, Cuban cigars and authentic Cuban cuisine. Rumor has it that informal gambling could be found on the second floor for those who knew the proper way to ask about such things. Famous celebrities and notorious gangsters such as Ernest Hemingway, Truman Capote, Louis Armstrong and Charles Lindbergh frequented the property.
The Café had a successful run of about fifteen years until the Southernmost House became a family home once again in 1954. The Ramos family closed the Café and started to refurbish and restore the mansion to its original grandeur. Liquor-stained hardwood floors were replaced with authentic and beautiful Cuban tile.
When the renovations and upgrades were complete and the family moved back in, Mrs. Ramos strongly suggested that her husband move his bawdy Friday night dominoes party to the recreation building to prevent spills and cigar smoke from damaging the main house again. No sooner had the family settled in than the guests descended upon the home.
Over the next forty years, the family was visited by royalty, celebrities and Presidents, including Truman, Nixon, Kennedy, Eisenhower and Carter. It seems Truman, especially, had a particular attachment to the home and during evening strolls around the island, he’d stop in for a few cocktails and friendly banter.
Ernest Hemingway wasn’t one to miss a party and he too spent a considerable amount of time at the Southernmost Home. He was there so frequently, in fact, he kept his horse’s saddle stored there. I wonder where he kept his horse.
The Ramos family were the perfect hosts. To accommodate a famous guest and cousin (King Juan Carlos of Spain) who couldn’t get enough of the home and the island’s perfect climate, they installed a helicopter pad to eliminate the security issues associated with his visits. No more worries about the King and his security personnel clogging up Route 1. Now that’s a considerate host and hostess.
In 1996, the home underwent a $3 million renovation and converted into an eighteen room bed and breakfast. Soft shades of mango and avocado cloak the home’s original brickwork, looking somewhat reminiscent of its time as a Cuban Café. The renovations seem to have successfully blended modern luxury with the home’s opulent history.
Behind the home is an elegant, zero-entry infinity pool that looks out over the calm waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Locals are invited to enjoy the poolside bar until 6pm and for only ten dollars are treated to an adult beverage, lounge chair, towel and pool access. That’s a deal that can’t be beat and the stunning sunsets are included at no extra charge.
Management at the Southernmost House has changed quite recently and all indications are that the change is for the better. What hasn’t changed are the eighteen rooms, each well appointed and homey. Room rates include a rather lovely continental breakfast and the home’s location is perfect.
Old homes with colorful pasts are abundant on this island but this is one of my favorites. Perhaps it’s the glorious seaside location or the graciously appointed interior that appeals to me, but most likely it’s the history. The stories of its early years and the mystery surrounding exactly who did what behind its walls are compelling and intriguing and that’s what lures me in every time.