Located at 1100 Atlantic Blvd on Higgs Beach, the West Martello is one of three Civil War era forts on the island.
The shape and design of Martello forts date back to the Napoleonic Wars. These types of forts were considered nearly impregnable.
The forts, a marvel of military engineering, were designed to withstand any amount of bombardment. The structures consisted of a round tower that stood two to three stories tall with cannons mounted on a flat roof. The cannons could be swiveled 180 degrees to engage a hostile threat from any side of the fortification. The rounded walls were an average of eight feet thick and were ideal to deflect cannon fire. Over time, the advent of rifled cannon fire eventually made all masonry fortifications obsolete.
Martello forts were most commonly built along vast expanses of shorelines where large fortifications were not feasible. To understand this particular fort’s location and strategic importance, you must view Key West as it was in the 1840’s. At that time, the majority of the buildings were centered around the deep-water port in what is now our historic district. West Martello, situated at the edge of an expansive salt pond, was far enough from the historic district that it was considered to be in the “country” by Key West’s citizens.
Due to its remote location, an inner courtyard surrounded by a thick casement wall was built for added protection. The military reasoned that since the West Martello was so far from both Fort Taylor and the East Martello, soldiers would need extra protection to withstand an invasion at the casement wall fortifications and, if need be, retreat to the central citadel until reinforcements arrived.
Construction on West Martello began in 1862 but the fort was never finished. It is believed that during the 1890s, much of this unique fortification was removed and used as fill during the reconfiguration of Fort Taylor from its three story Civil War height to its current one story.
West Martello was abandoned after 1866. However, on three separate instances, it was called back into service. The first was briefly before the Spanish American War. In an effort to modernize defensives on the island and in recognition of the strategic importance of the fort, a battery of two guns was installed on the ocean tower casements. A second occurrence was during World War II when an anti-aircraft battery was located within the fort walls. Most recently, during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the Army strung the beaches in front of the fort with rolls of barbed wire, portable missile launchers, and searchlights.
In 1949, the Tower was thought to be an eyesore. Pressure was put on the County to level the Tower and put in new beach area. Representative Joe Allen appealed to the Commissioners and demolition of the tower was stopped. The Key West Garden Club took an interest in the old fort and it became its Garden Center.
In 1976, the West Martello Tower Garden Center was declared a National Historic Site by the State of Florida and now is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Today the remains of the fort are home to the Key West Garden Club. Under their guidance, the military might of years past has given way to a wide variety of community events, educational activities and the occasional wedding.
The Garden Club has preserved historic pathways that wind through graceful arched courtyards adorned in lush, colorful foliage. Spectacular strangler fig tree roots envelope historic brick fortifications surrounded by unique, subtropical gardens filled with a wide array of plants not seen in other parts of the country.
Come visit the Key West Garden Club at West Martello. Admission is free.
Here is a really cool video walking around and through the West Martello.
(Key West Historic Marker Tour)