50 years ago, and not a moment too soon.
In the 1950s, demand for new homes was exceeding supply. Developers were looking for areas to build. Old Town Key West was a good location near downtown stores and the well paid jobs on the Naval Base with old homes and buildings that could be removed and new ones built. This effort was being aided by the city commissions that at almost ever meeting were ordering old buildings and homes that were in disrepair to be razed; even the Oldest House on Duval Street was on the list to removed.
A group of concerned citizens realized that with the loss of these buildings the island was losing its unique charm. To highlight this problem the non-profit Old Island Restoration Foundation (OIRF) was incorporated in May 1960. The mission was to “…restore and/or maintain the tangible and intangible atmosphere of ‘old Island’ history lore by proper zoning and any other pertinent and necessary measures…” The first officers of OIRF were: Rita Sawyer, Ruth Holtsberg, Joan Knight, Mary Graham and John J. Pinder.
The OIRF worked with the Board of Public Works of the City of Key West to create the first historic district and a Board of Architectural Review. The city’s building department had to submit all building permits in the historic district to the Board for approval. The first members of the board were: Kermit Lewin, Ygnacio Carbonell, Sam Goldsmith, Mrs. Paul Newhouse and Mrs. George Mills White. The board held its first meeting in November 1960 and Kermit Lewin was elected chairman.
In 1965 the Board of Architectural Review was changed to the Old Island Restoration Commission and authorized under state law. The historic district was expanded over the years and the power of the Commission increased. In 1986 the named was again changed to Historic Architectural Review Commission and the powers expanded again under state law with the city’s historic preservation planner having more control over the process.
That far-sighted group in 1960 saved the Key West Historic District which today is one of the main attractions to the millions of tourists that visit every year.