La Concha Key West – Historic Walking Tour
Located at 430 Duval between Fleming and Eaton Streets, the La Concha Key West is the tallest building in Key West. You can enjoy a spa day on the roof top or a glass of wine from the wine bar on the ground floor. No matter your reason for visiting, or staying at the La Concha Key West, it will be historic and memorable.
Key West and Cuba
By the 1920’s, Key West had become a major port and tourist attraction. Travelers could come from New York to Key West on Henry Flager’s railroad and have their rail car transferred to a ferry to head over to Cuba for a short ride for gambling and entertainment. In 1922, rail fare from New York to Key West, using different rail lines was $77. It was, and still remains today, easier to travel 90 miles to Cuba through deep, safe water via Key West than to traverse the very dangerous shoals between Key West and Miami.
Cuba was a major tourist destination for these travelers. During this time, Gerardo Machado was president and the tourist trade in Cuba really took off. Hotels, restaurants, night clubs, golf clubs and casinos sprung up in Havana catering to rich tourists. American socialites and celebrities. Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner were some of the celebrities who traveled frequently to Cuba.
The then Cuban government was friendly to Key West. In 1919, when the San Carlos Institute was destroyed by a hurricane, the Cuban government provided $80,000 to rebuild it and sent their best architect to design it. The San Carlos, located at 516 Duval Street (just a block down from the La Concha) has all of the elements of classical Cuban architecture. It incorporates high ceilings, massive wooden doors, Spanish mosaics decorate the walls and hand made black and white Cuban tiles are on the floors. Today, technically, the building still belongs to the Republic of Cuba. While the United States had diplomatic relations with Cuba the building served as the Cuban consulate. Today it is a cultural center and museum.
Even today, tourists can visit the famous haunts of the past in Cuba. The Hotel Nacional still has photos hanging in their lobby of past famous guests, the La Tropicana still features a nightly cabaret. Hemingway fans flock to La Floridita to try rum cocktails.
By 1928, 90,000 Americans traveled to Cuba annually. Considered the “Paris of the Caribbean” Americans flocked to Cuba for entertainment after Prohibition was enacted in the United States. Estimates put the number of bars in Havana, at that time, to over 7,000. Each of these bars were filled with Americans drinking and American bartenders, trying to hone their craft. Distilleries and breweries also relocated from the United States to Cuba during Prohibition.
Prohibition offered Key West and the Florida Keys a cottage industry…smuggling of contraband alcohol. Contraband beer and rum came from Cuba and whiskey, rye and scotch came from the British Isles via Nassau.
La Concha Key West History
In the 1920’s, Key West lacked sufficient hotel accommodations, even though the city was at its height of wealth and prosperity.
Carl Aubuchon recognized this need and began construction on the La Concha in 1925. Although Aubuchon is credited with building the hotel, an October 10, 1924 Key West Citizen newspaper article states the Florida Keys Realty Company built the hotel. Aubuchon is only listed as a Vice President of the company. The president of the Florida Keys Realty Company is Jefferson B. Browne, who is widely known in Key West. He was a very active part of the community from the 1880’s until 1937, the year of his death.
Mr. Browne was a Key West City attorney, Postmaster, Florida State Senator, head of the Key West Custom’s office, Chairman of the Florida Railroad Commission, Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice and Miami and Key West Circuit Court Judge. He wrote a book on Key West history Key West, the Old and the New in 1912. Browne seems to have led the efforts to build the hotel while it appears Aubuchon oversaw the construction. The Atlanta archectecurial firm, G. Lloyd Preacher and Company did the hotel design. State Bank and Trust offices were to occupy the first floor.
After a short labor strike, the hotel opened its doors on January 22, 1926. The building was touted as a “modern, fire proof” structure. An 1886 fire, thought to be started by Spanish forces, opposing the Cuban Revolution, burned a significant portion of Old Town, particularly the cigar factories. The La Concha Key West has a steel frame and terra-cotta exterior, which were part of the design to make the building “fire-proof”.
It quickly became a success with visiting dignataries, celebrates, high society and industrialists.
It cost $768,000 to construct the building and another $130,000 to furnish it. The hotel was luxurious. It had marble floors, private baths, an elevator and sweeping ocean views. Room rates were $3.00 a day and for an additional 35 cents a steak dinner was provided. The hotel opened with 100 guest rooms. A number of rooms were connected to adjoining rooms by baths, a novel feature at the time. Even rooms without baths had hot and cold running water. Other amenities included: telephone booths, a haberdashery, bakery, ballroom and lush carpeting.
When the stock market crashed in 1929, Key West became one of the poorest cities in America. Within six months of the crash, the floundering hotel was sold and renamed the Key West Colonial Hotel. Locally, it still is known as the La Concha.
By the 1970’s only a downstairs diner and the roof top bar remained open. Holiday Inn, which is now owned by Crown Plaza (part of IHG) bought the property in the mid-1980’s.
In 1985, restorations began on the hotel. The plan was to restore it to its original beauty. Old photographs and interviews with locals guided the restoration efforts.
The guest rooms were renovated again in 2012.
The La Concha has had many famous guests over the years. Ernest Hemingway wrote of Depression-era rum runner Harry Morgan in To Have and Have Not. Hemingway references the famous La Concha tower as Harry sails away from Key West.
Tennessee Williams finished A Street Car Names Desire during his stay in 1946. He lived in a sixth floor suite for a year while finishing the play. During the 2012 renovation, his suite was updated. Tennessee Williams loved Key West so much he established his residence in town in 1949 and in 1950 bought his home at 1431 Duncan Street. He lived there for the next 34 years.
The president of Pan American World Airways, Juan A. Trippe, announced the beginning of service between Key West and Cuba in 1927 and then located his first office in the hotel.
It is also reported Al Capone and his cronies were guests.
Like most of Key West buildings, this one has a few ghosts. A man cleaning up The Top bar on New Year’s Eve 1982, pulling a cart of dirty dishes backed through the open freight elevator’s doors, not knowing the elevator had not returned to the floor. The claim is his ghost can be seen on the fifth floor (even though he fell from the sixth, he is seen on the fifth) and his scream can be heard has he falls down the elevator shaft.
Other ghosts have been reported in the gift shop. Guests state they feel someone tap their shoulder and when they turn around … no one is there. Before The Top bar closed and was converted into a spa, 13 people jumped to their death. A few of their ghosts have be seen on the roof top. One appears to pace, possibly rethinking his decision to jump. In 2006, a suicide occurred when a fellow downed a glass of chardonnay and then jumped from the seventh floor. Guests have reported on different occaisiions suddenly having their glasses of chardonnay violently, and inexplicably, ripped from their hands.
Interested in other ghosts near by? How about the ghost of Robert Curry at the Hard Rock Cafe located at 313 Duval. Or ghosts seen at the Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church Cemetery located at 401 Duval Street. On these grounds is also a vicious ghost; that of a sea captain who fought pirates and has been reported to attack guests. If you want a full overview and history of Key West’s famous, and not so famous, ghosts, plan to go on a ghost tour while in town.
La Conch today
Today the La Concha Key West is run by Crowne Plaza which is part of the IHG group. As part of the IHG they participate in the rewards program. Use your reward points to book your next trip to Key West. The hotel has 160 rooms on seven floors. Keep in mind, this is, and will remain, the tallest building in Key West. No other buildings can be built higher than four floors. The hotel has valet parking (this means you will pay for daily parking) and a heated outdoor pool. The pool area offers a full service bar.
The top floor of the La Concha Key West is reserved for Top Spa. Schedule a pampering session while taking in an unbelievable view of Key West from the highest spot on the island.
The in-house restaurant is 430 Duval. It offers unique cuisine inspired by bold Caribbean spices and flavors. It is is a quiet refuge from the hustle and bustle of busy Duval Street. Open from 7am to 11pm, they offer a full menu for breakfast, lunch, dinner and drinks. Wine-O is a wine bar and store on the ground floor. Wine-O features over 200 bottles of wine from around the world. Try a glass, a flight or take a few bottles back to your hotel room.
Jamba Juice is also on the ground floor. They offer fruit smoothies and fresh pressed juices. In the mood for a cup of coffee? Starbucks is next door to Jamba Juice. Stop by for your morning latte.
(credit: Mashable.com, smithsonianmag.com, Difford’s Guide for Discerning Drinkers, keywesthistoricalmarkertour.org, n-the-florida-keys.com, visitingsmalltownflorida.com, keywestparanormal.com, floridakeys.com, twkw.org, flagerkeys100.com, wlrn.org, florida-keys-vacation.com)