The Custom House is located at 281 Front Street.
This big red brick building was built as the U.S. Custom House. It opened in 1891 and in addition to the custom house it was the home to postal services and district court. The four story building was built to keep up with the increasing population of Key West. It is an example of Dichardsonian romanesque architecture very typical for Federal buildings at the end of the 19th century.
Key West, along with Florida, became a United States territory in 1821. In January of 1822, Alabama businessman John Simonton purchased the island for $2,000 because of its strategic location. Geographically, Key West is situated 128 miles southwest of mainland Florida and 90 miles north of Cuba. Its close proximity to trade routes connecting major ports in the United States, the Caribbean and the Americas made Key West an ideal destination for business entrepreneurs such as Simonton, as well as the U.S. military.
Major industries ranging from salvaging, importing, exporting, fishing, sponging, sea salt, and eventually cigar manufacturing formed the backbone of Key West’s 19th century economy. As a result, Key West’s population grew quickly. By 1890, Key West was the largest city in Florida with a population of 18,000 compared to Miami with less than 500. It was also considered to be the wealthiest city per capita in the United States.
Key West’s expanding trade operations required a stronger Federal presence on the island. By 1828, Key West had been designated a U.S. Port of Entry, leading to the Federal Government establishing the Superior Court of the Southern Judicial District of the Territory of Florida in Key West.
In 1833, the government purchased land near the harbor and erected a small wooden structure to house its customs operations. So lucrative were the customs operations, that by 1882 the annual revenue generated in Key West alone was greater than the amount of revenue received from all other Florida ports combined.
The Customs House was where the inquiry into the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana harbor in 1898 took place.
In 1932 the building was transferred to the US Navy and became its headquarters for their Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico operations. When no longer needed it was abandoned.
The building stood vacant for the next 20 years until the state recognized its historical and architectural importance. In 1991 it was sold to the Florida Land Acquisition Advisory Council.
In 1993 the Key West Art & Historical Society undertook an extensive 9 million dollar restoration of the dilapidated building returning it to its original glory.
Be sure to check out the Seward Johnson sculptures located outside the building.
Seward Johnson is the grandson of Robert Wood Johnson co-founder of Johnson & Johnson. He is most famous for his life-size sculptures of people.
(Key West Historic Marker Tour)