John James Audubon, famous for his Birds of America book, visited Key West in the spring of 1832 and stayed at the home of the Geiger family. Slated for demolition in 1958, the house at 205 Whitehead Street was saved by the Mitchell Wolfson Family Foundation, and was the first restoration project in Key West. Visionaries capitalized on the history of the Geiger family and created a legacy for Audubon in Key West through the Audubon House and Tropical Gardens, which welcomes visitors daily to explore the historic home and special gardens.
Audubon stayed at the home of Capt. John Huling Geiger while he sought 22 bird species during his visit to Key West and the Dry Tortugas. A Birds of Key West book and prints commemorate the naturalist’s journey. Terns, herons, doves, pigeons and the mangrove cuckoo and American flamingo are included in this collection.
By the time Audubon visited Key West, he already was highly regarded. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1830.
Audubon lived from 1785-1851 and is best-known for a color-plate book entitled Birds of America (1827–1839), which is considered one of the finest ornithological works ever completed. Audubon also identified 25 new species, achieved the first bird-banding experiment in America and invented a method of wiring dead birds in order to paint them in a natural way.
According to a Wikipedia excerpt of a book about Audubon by Richard Rhodes, a companion of Audubon wrote in a newspaper article about the trip to Key West, “Mr. Audubon is the most enthusiastic and indefatigable man I ever knew… Audubon was neither dispirited by heat, fatigue, or bad luck… [H]e rose every morning at 3 o’clock and went out… until 1 o’clock.” The account continued, “He would draw the rest of the day before returning to the field in the evening, a routine he kept up for weeks and months.”
An exhibit in the Key West house shares the contents of a letter penned by Ellen Anderson in June 1849 describing Key West as a swamp swarmed by incessant mosquitoes. Her statement is placed in the master bedroom in which the bed is draped in mosquito netting!
Geiger built his home 165 years ago on a corner lot which was surrounded by homes of other prominent families. He was a harbor pilot and master wrecker when salvaging vessels was profitable. Geiger and his wife raised 11 children in the home. Furnishings represent items that are typical of the elegance and comfortable living enjoyed by wealthy families in Key West during the mid-1800s.
During a visit to the home, guests are welcomed by a docent and given a brief overview of the home, its residents and history, its furnishing and décor, and told of Audubon’s 28 first-edition works. Then, visitors are free to wander and enjoy the many historical displays.
Outside, the one-acre garden includes colorful natives and exotics as well as rare and endangered plants that are marked with informative signage. One can see a plant from Madagascar found only in one small forest, as well as the Marquesas Palm, which originates in the Solomon Islands in Oceania and is extinct in the wild. Medicinal plants and herbs, orchids, bromeliads, the Geiger tree and a Koi pond provide a peaceful oasis in which to enjoy Key West’s allure.
Open seven days a week, the house tours are from 9:30 a.m. to 4:15 p.m., while the gallery and gift shop remain open until 5 p.m. For more information, call 305-294-2116 or 877-294-2470 or visit wwwaudubonhouse.org.