When zipping around town on our daily errands, taking kids to school or managing careers, it’s easy to overlook the historical significance of countless buildings on the island.

One such building – believed to be one of the oldest schoolhouses in Key West – is located at the corner of Duval and Eaton Streets. Currently the offices of Prudential Knight and Gardner Real Estate, it was originally known as the Patterson-Baldwin House.

It was built in 1847, and is one of the oldest surviving structures in Key West.

The frame vernacular (wood construction) building has elements of Classical Revival and Bahamian architecture. The exterior features a metal shingle roof, two story gallery, hand-sawn balustrades and elongated windows with shutters. The school bell hanging above the second story porch is a clue to the house’s original use.

The building started as a modest one and a half story cottage with a front and side porch. It was moved and rebuilt at this location in 1847 when Alexander Patterson, once the Mayor of Key West, purchased it. The move occurred after the devastating hurricane of 1846. As detailed in last week’s column, the hurricane destroyed all but six of the 600 buildings on the island. Building materials and skilled carpenters were in scarce supply, and many surviving structures like this were built with salvaged lumber from demolished structures or relocated to the surrounding streets.

Mr. and Mrs. William Pinkney rented the small two-room house from the mayor where his sister, Madame Passaloque, began conducting classes in the island’s first schoolhouse until 1860.

The Florida public school system was not organized until the 1870s.

John P. Baldwin, who claimed to be a member of an aristocratic British family, purchased the property in 1860. Mrs. Baldwin was a music teacher, and her three daughters were school teachers.

The Baldwins moved to the Bahamas during the Civil War and returned at the war’s end. They enlarged the cottage with the two-story addition at the front of the lot in 1867, and the building remained in the Baldwin family for 102 years.

Joan and Edward B. Knight purchased the property in 1962. By then, a fire had heavily damaged the schoolhouse portion of the building in the 1960s, and the main structure had fallen into a sad state of neglect.

With hopes of engaging citizens and visitors with the idea of restoring or purchasing old neglected buildings, Mr. Knight completely restored the front facade of the house and landscaped the Duval Street side of the building while leaving the Eaton Street side of the building boarded up with waist high weeds. He then erected a large sign that read the “Before-and-After” house.

It gained national attention when the National Trust for the Preservation of Historic Homes photographed and published it as an inspirational approach for other neighborhoods and cities that were battling economic blight throughout the country.

The Knight’s painstakingly restored the structure over the years and their efforts served as a catalyst for the Key West Historic Preservation program.


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