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Key West History and Culture Bike Tour
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Constructed in 1901, this historic armory served as the headquarters of a Key West militia unit that was established decades prior during the Civil War to protect against Confederate forces. The Florida Keys were of strategic importance to intercepting Southern shipping, and Key West remained a strategic naval location after the war. The Armory served local and national forces through World War II, part of a longstanding relationship between the island city and the U.S. military that dates back to the first presence of Americans in Key West in the 1820s. Since the Second World War, the building has mainly functioned as a community center followed by a home to local artists.

  • The Armory in Key West

As a major seaport, Key West enjoyed significant growth at the end of the nineteenth century, growing into the state's largest and wealthiest city by 1890. The Armory, built at the turn of the century, served Monroe County and Key West as housing for arms and men. The building survives as one of the few remaining large frame buildings designed by T. F. Russell and built by John T Sawyer; its distinctive style was popular in Key West at this time. 

Since Key West's settlement in 1822, the island has been of strategic importance to the federal government. Unlike when the British and Spanish occupied Florida, the U.S. actively pursued using and protecting the island for diplomatic and military purposes. The Navy in 1823 made the island a base for its special anti-pirate squadron. In 1831, the U.S. established an Army post on the island. In 1845, construction began on Fort Zachary Taylor, a significant fortification. During the Civil War, Key West volunteer troops known as Key West Rifles defended the island against the Confederate military, allowing the island to remain a strong Union base. Indeed, the U.S. frequently built military installations on Key West; the military occupied nearly 30% of the Key West's urban area by the late 1960s. 

The turn of the century was an opulent period in Key West history. Although isolated from the Florida mainland by sea, the island city boasted of bustling cigar and sponge industries and benefitted from its position as a vital U.S. Seaport. The 1890 census showed Key West to stand as the state's largest and wealthiest city. In 1901, Monroe County purchased a lot directly opposite the entrance to the U.S. Army Cantonment. (The Florida Supreme Court later ruled it was the state's responsibility to build the Armory, so the state refunded the county and has consequently owned the building since then.) They constructed the Armory on the property for the Island City Guards, a descendant of the Key West Rifles that emerged during the Civil War. The Island City Guards later became part of the Florida National Guard. The Armory later served as a training facility for the U.S. Military during World War I and II before transitioning into a community center during the last half of the twentieth century. 

Since 2006, the building has shifted from one with a military purpose to one that hosts artists. From 2006 to 2015, The Studios of Key West, an artist community offering creative space, workshops, and cultural events, used the building as its main campus. In 2015, 12 Artist Studios moved into the building and established.'Artists at the Armory' on the second floor. The main hall remains available for lease, often used by local theater companies as a rehearsal space. Today, the state leases the building to the Historic Florida Keys Foundation.

Bruce, Betty. "Nomination Form: The Armory." National Register of Historic Places. nps.gov. March 11, 1971. https://npgallery.nps.gov/GetAsset/920ccf8c-ab1c-4b45-8f72-73ba461dfa50.

Matson, Marsha A. "Key West Armory." The Historical Marker Database. hmdb.org. 2015. https://www.hmdb.org/m.asp?m=85266.

Ogle, Maureen. Key West: History of an Island of Dreams. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2006.

Wilkinson, Jerry. "History of Key West." Historical Preservation Society of the Upper Keys: Keys Historium. keyhistory.org. Accessed March 5, 2021. http://www.keyshistory.org/keywest.html.

Image Sources(Click to expand)

By Marc Averette - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4268031