This Man Is an Island

David Wolkowsky returned to his childhood home of Key West, Florida, in 1962, when he was in his 40s. Today, as he nears 100, he has long been known as Mr. Key West. Michael Adno tells us how the island we know today became a reflection of one man’s campy sense of style.

By Michael Adno for The Bitter Southerner (Available online here)

Close to midday in the middle of July, I edge toward the last block of Flagler Avenue on the fringe of the hive-like bungalows of Old Town Key West, near Higgs Beach. Only a few blocks off the water, the steady trade winds make the palms and poincianas whir and bend. Looking south, the sky holds a taupe blue that bleeds into a dark gray further west. To the east, the sun hangs high, its light making everything look postcard tropical.

I’m headed to the home of a man whose name every local knows: David Wolkowsky.

When I reach his house, Wolkowsky tells me he returned home to Key West 56 years ago, in 1962. “It was literally a village. It was still like that,” he says, pointing to a large photograph of men clad in U.S. Navy garb crowded into a bar.

“There were remnants of the war, and they were trying to keep the Cubans out,” he says. “They had wiring around the beach to protect against a Cuban invasion.”

The big photograph sits on a counter, leaning against a bookshelf filled with biographies and monographs sandwiched between Indonesian shutters. From a couch in the center of the space, four wooden columns stretch upward toward high ceilings, and a thin sliver of a skylight stakes the perimeter. On the ground, sculptures, paintings, and orchids creep up to tables. Countertops are strewn with mementos Wolkowsky had collected. A note to Wolkowsky from Buckminster Fuller hangs below an Isamu Noguchi model. Leaning against an archaic Greek sculpture is a portrait of Wolkowsky drawn by the playwright Tennessee Williams. The words, “L’in Connu: C’est les yeux” — “the unknown: it’s the eyes” — are scrawled across it.

Wolkowksy, 98, is most commonly referred to as Mr. Key West. In the 1960s, he developed the Old Town portion of Key West, which ultimately led to its ascension as a tourist destination. As a native, Wolkowsky set out to “preserve the past by making it work for the present at a profit,” he told a Miami Herald reporter in 1969, not long after opening his landmark project, the Pier House Motel, in 1967.

Today, much of what locals call “the rock” lies under the weight of development, yet when you wander around Old Town, almost every other home bears a Historic Register plaque, and the sky remains big and open. Much of that charm is due to Wolkowsky, maybe the town’s most celebrated yet most mysterious proponent, who was undoubtedly a catalyst for its rich melange of cultures.

Where the Overseas Highway stretches across 120 miles of contiguous islets and islands, the 6-square-mile island of Key West punctuates its terminus. To most, the tiny blip of limestone is known for the arterial vein of debauchery known as Duval Street, which some misguidedly compare to Bourbon Street in New Orleans. But between the franchise bars and frozen daiquiris and T-shirt shops, little portals lead through flora-laden haunts to the Key West that has drawn so many people over time. For some, it’s served as an outpost of solitude, to dry out, to feel less strange. To others, it’s been a dead end, a place to reinvent oneself, maybe a place to disappear. That’s to say the place casts a spell on people.

Its striated layers of codes, milieu, and history are part of what’s made the place so attractive — the gloss of its celebrity past, too. But even today with the influx of cruise-ships and Segway tours, ballooning rents and shadows of eras long-gone, the allure remains. If there was one way to put it, Key West exceeds your expectations — again and again. For me, it’s only grown more mysterious with each visit.

Meeting David Wolkowsky only deepened that.

Read the entire feature and see all the photographs online at The Bitter Southerner.

Michael Adno for The Bitter Southerner