Audubon House and Tropical Gardens in Key West, FL
Slipping through the gate at Audubon House and Tropical Gardens is like stepping back in time. One block over, the crowds on Duval Street may be swelling as yet another cruise ship disembarks, but the sounds of honking horns and loud trolley P.A. systems will disappear as the scent of the garden's orchids fills your head. Step onto the expansive porch of the house and into the world of an 1840s-era master wrecker's family and leave the bustle of today's Key West behind.
Key West's Audubon House
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Visiting Audubon House and Tropical Gardens
Enter the grounds of the historic Audubon House and Tropical Gardens from the Audubon House Gallery at 205 Whitehead Street. Admission is $12 for adults, $7.50 for students age 12 and up, and $5 for children age 6 to 12. Children under 6 are admitted at no charge. Mention the coupon available at the Audubon House website to receive $1 off the adult rate (there is no need to print the coupon).
Head to the front porch of the house where a knowledgeable guide will greet you and provide a 10-minute introduction to the property and its history and answer any questions you have. You then are free to explore the house and grounds at your leisure. Although you can get through everything more quickly if you choose, allow yourself at least an hour. There is plenty to see and discover throughout the three-story home and one acre garden.
The house, which is built in the American Classic Revival style, is furnished with antiques dating to the first half of the 19th century typical of a wealthy Key West family of the time. There are a total of 28 first edition works of John James Audubon located throughout the house. The lush one acre tropical garden features a restored cookhouse, an 1850s-era medicinal and herb garden and nursery, a fish pond, and many native and exotic plants, many of which are labeled with their common and Latin names.
In the garden at Audubon House
History of Audubon House
Audubon House was built in 1846 by Captain Geiger, a master wrecker and Key West’s first harbor pilot. Learn about Key West’s wrecking industry.
A smaller house that previously stood on the property had been destroyed by a hurricane. Captain Geiger used his ship's carpenters and the best available materials to build a bigger, stronger house that would withstand the test of time.
Captain Geiger and his wife lived in the house with their seven daughters and two sons. Ten slaves also lived on the property, which comprised about 10 acres at the time.
The Geiger family lived in the house for 110 years. The last of Geiger’s descendents to live there was Edward Buford Smith, who died in 1956 after living in the house for 20 years without electricity or plumbing.
After Smith’s death, the city of Key West took the house to collect back taxes. In 1958, the house was slated for demolition to make way for a gas station to be erected on the site. However, the Mitchell Wolfson Family Foundation, a non-profit educational organization, stepped in to save it. This was the start of Key West’s restoration movement.
Today the home is open to the public daily for individual and group tours. It also is available for weddings, corporate, and other special events. The adjacent Audubon House Gallery offers original antique Audubon prints as well as limited edition modern prints, other artwork, nautical maps and charts, and gift items.
How Audubon House got its name
Although many believe that famed ornithologist and naturalist John James Audubon once lived at the house that now bears his name, he never even stepped foot in it. While Audubon spent time in Key West in 1832, the house wasn’t built for another 14 years after his departure. The name comes from the role the property played in Audubon’s most famous work, Birds of America.
Audubon was born to French parents in what is now Haiti in 1775. He came to the United States in 1803 to avoid being drafted into Napoleon’s army and was sent to manage his family’s estate in Pennsylvania. There, he became enthralled with nature. He started drawing birds as a hobby and, in 1820, embarked on an ambitious project to find and paint all species of birds in North America.
Audubon’s quest led him to a six-week stay in Key West in the spring of 1832 to document the birds of the Florida Keys. There he met the town physician, Dr. Benjamin Strobel, an amateur naturalist. While visiting Dr. Strobel’s home, Audubon admired the tropical gardens on the neighboring property owned by Captain John Geiger, where Audubon House now stands.
With Dr. Strobel’s help, Audubon procured cuttings from the garden’s plants to use as background for his work. One plant was the rough-leaved Cordia tree, which Audubon used in his drawing of the white-crowned pigeon. He gave the tree the common name “Geiger tree” after the property’s owner.
John James Audubon's Birds of America
Audubon’s 14 years of fieldwork, including his time in Key West, resulted in a portfolio of drawings published as 435 hand-colored, life-size prints and sold to subscribers for a price of $870. Most subscribers had the folio bound in four volumes.
Fewer than 200 copies of the first edition of Birds of America,also known as the Havel edition, were made. Only around 120 complete sets of the 3-1/2-foot tall books are known to exist today; the others have been separated into individual prints. In December 2010, a complete Havel edition sold at auction for $11.5 million; another sold in January 2012 for $7.9 million.
Later editions of Birds of America were issued in smaller formats to make the prints more affordable and widely available.
A gallery on the third floor of Audubon House contains prints of all 22 of Audubon’s “Birds of Florida” (18 from the Florida Keys and four from the mainland) as well as a cover of Volume III of the Havel edition. The prints are first editions of the Royal Octavio edition of Birds of America, which was published in 1844. Several prints from the Havel edition are on display elsewhere throughout the house.