I have just returned from my gang’s annual fishing/diving trip to Key West, where weather (what has now turned into Tropical Storm Andrea) curtailed some of our activity. However, they did get into a school of mahi one morning (the morning I slept in, of course) and we feasted on that for two nights.
I got to stay at the historic La Concha Hotel on Duval Street (see below). And, just around the corner on Eaton Street I discovered dangerously-addictive Glazed Donuts. Those dastardly donut designers got me instantly hooked on their fluffy spare-tire-sized cinnamon-sugar donuts and their apple-almond fritters.
Excerpt from Florida’s Best Bed & Breakfasts and Historic Hotels (coming from Pineapple Press, September 2013):
At seven stories the La Concha Hotel, a Key West icon built in 1926, was then and still is today the tallest building on the island. The first six floors are hotel rooms, and the seventh is a roof-top bar that affords Key West’s best view across the city.
“Developer” Carl Aubuchon most often gets credit for building the La Concha, but I found more complete information in an October 10, 1924 Key West Citizen Newspaper article archived at the University of Florida Library: The company that built the La Concha was called the Florida Keys Realty Company. Carl Aubuchon was listed only as Vice President (and curiously I could find no more information about Aubuchon anywhere else); the President was attorney Jefferson B. Browne for whom there is plenty of historical information. Browne was a key player in Key West from the 1880’s through the 1930’s: Key West City Attorney, Postmaster, Florida State Senator, head of Key West Customs Office, Chairman of the Florida Railroad Commission, Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice, and Miami and Key West Circuit Court Judge. He also wrote a history volume Key West, The Old and the New in 1912. He died in 1937. Anyway, it seems apparent that Browne was the influence that handled the red tape, and it’s likely that Aubuchon handled the actual contracting. Atlanta architectural firm G. Lloyd Preacher and Company did the design. State Bank and Trust offices would be the anchor and occupy the first floor.
Florida Keys Realty Company’s press release claimed the building cost $768,000 to build. Fires were very much a concern in Key West. An 1886 fire, thought to have been set by Spanish forces in opposition to the Cuban Revolution, had burned a significant portion of downtown Key West and particularly its cigar factories. So the new La Concha—built with steel-frame, marble floors, and terra-cotta exterior, was heavily advertised as “fire-proof”. It opened with much fanfare in January, 1926. Broadway star Martha Lane was the headliner. But four years later following the 1929 stock market crash, not just the La Concha but all of Key West would be in a precipitous economic decline. It was sold in 1930 and renamed the Key West Colonial Hotel, but everybody still called it the La Concha.
Although the La Concha managed to remain open for decades, it continued to decay. There are some literary-historical footnotes along the way: In Ernest Hemingway’s 1937 To Have and Have Not character Harry Morgan notes that the La Concha is his sight-guide for returning to Key West from Cuba. Tennessee Williams lived in a top floor suite at the La Concha for a year and finished writing A Streetcar Named Desire there in 1947.
By the 1970’s only a downstairs diner and the rooftop bar remained open. The La Concha would not recover until Holiday Inn bought the dilapidated property and embarked on a multi-million-dollar restoration in 1986. Subsequently, Crowne Plaza Hotels (now a part of Intercontinental Hotels Group) purchased Holiday Inn. In 2012 they renovated once again, this time mostly updating the rooms—including the sixth-floor two-bedroom suite where Tennessee Williams lived. In addition to The Top—the La Concha’s roof-top bar, downstairs they have Jack’s Seafood Restaurant, and the island’s only Starbucks coffee shop.
Like so many old historic hotels, the La Concha has some ghost stories. One of the most often told concerns a man who was helping clean up The Top bar on New Year’s Eve 1982. He was pulling a cart of dirty plates, and backed through a freight elevator’s open doors, not knowing that the elevator had not arrived yet on that floor. The claim is that his ghost appears on the fifth floor (even though he fell from the sixth floor), and some report hearing his scream as he falls down the elevator shaft.
Bruce Hunt (more about Bruce’s books at BruceHuntBooks.com)