How would you like to be 96 years old, look around your home town and say…..I am responsible for all this!
Only one person. David Wolkowsky. Without him, the Key West of today would not have been.
He is the father of modern Key West.
Mentioned merely at this point to show a part of David’s contribution. The Pier House and Jimmy Buffett.
David was born in Key West. A for real Conch. His grandfather Albert Wolkowsky settled in Key West in the late 1800s. Opened a fine clothing store on Duval Street.
David grew up in Key West and Miami. Attended the University of Pennsylvania. Remained in Philadelphia after graduation. He began restoring buildings. He is credited with the rejuvenation of Society Hill and Rittenhouse Square.
His successful efforts in Philadelphia made him a millionaire.
David returned to Key West in the early 1960s following the death of his father Issac Wolkowsky He was 40 at the time. Already financially secure.
David was not one to sit still. He was driven. He had to be busy.
The Wolkowsky family owned several properties in old town. He renovated them.
The original Sloppy Joe’s on Greene Street had been condemned. He bought the building and restored it. Today known as Captain Tony’s.
He developed property on Duval and Front Streets. The properties included Pirate’s Alley and the Original Cigar Factory.
Key West in the early 1960s was nowhere like it is today. Not even close. The island was neither Paradise nor a paradise setting.
David was a man of vision. He saw where others did/could not.
The gulf end of Duval Street a mess. Dirty and sloppy. No beach in sight.
David saw possibilities for the area. He purchased the old Cuban Ferry Dock for $106,000. A steal.
The Porterhouse Steamship office was located on the property. He removed it from its foundation and transported it 300 feet. Set the building on pilings in 40 feet of water. Turned it into Tony’s Fish Market. A cocktail lounge and restaurant. A successful undertaking. Guests able to watch shrimp boats moving along on the water.
David wanted to transform Key West into a funky tourist destination. Unconventional, he sought the offbeat.
In 1967, David began construction on a 50 room motel. It was constructed around Tony’s Fish Market. When the 50 rooms were completed, he quickly added 50 more. These facing the ocean. Demand was that good.
David called the motel the Pier House Resort Motel. From which today’s Pier House grew.
The motel had a bar. Called the Chart Room. Still there today. Never renovated since constructed. People drink and raise hell in the same atmosphere as when built.
David sold the Pier House in the late 1970s.
Jimmy Buffett came to town in 1971. Knew very few people. Buffett an unknown. Best described, he was a young man with a guitar who enjoyed his cocktails. His last stop prior to Key West was Austin, Texas. The Austin Buffett sat on his front porch drinking and singing tunes he had composed.
One of his Austin hangouts was Lung’s Cocina del Sar. A bar. Where Buffett met up with Margaritas. The beginning of his search for a casual new place with a who cares attitude. A tropical climate was required. A beach resort place.
Buffet and David met. David was taken by him. Permitted Buffett to play in the Chart Room for tips. Later, for pay. Buffett says David was the first to pay him.
The relationship continues to today. The two close friends and occasional business partners.
Buffett was searching for his Shangrila when first he came to Key West. He called it Margaritaville. He found it in Key West.
Bob Marley also got his start via David at the Pier House Motel.
The Pier House became a magnate for celebrities. David’s personality attracted them.
One was Truman Capote. He came to Key West to spend the winter. At David’s Pier House Motel.
David was living next to the Pier House in a 45 foot 2 bedroom trailer. Ten feet from the water. While having a drink with David in his luxurious trailer, Capote said he wanted to rent the trailer. David acquiesced after some back and forth banter. David moved to a suite in the Motel. Capote into the trailer.
During his three month stay, Capote wrote Answered Prayers.
Capote described the Pier House as “elegant inefficiency.”
The Pier House motel was the beginning of the new Key West. David is credited with putting Key West on the road to becoming a major tourist destination.
Along the way, David built the Reach Resort on the Atlantic side of Key West.
David kept a low profile. He possessed a sly humor. Drove around Key West in a golf cart or his beloved 1926 Rolls Royce. Generally seen in a Panama hat. Several pair of sunglasses on the hat, some hanging from his neck.
David also did what only David could do. He built a house on an uninhabited private island 8 miles off Key West. Built it while building the Pier House. The island called Ballast Key.
David the visionary is exhibited in the construction of the house on Ballast Key.
There was a speakeasy on stilts which also marked the entrance to the North West Channel in Key West. It had burned down. David collected drawings and photographs of the speakeasy. He wanted his Ballast Key home to look precisely like the speakeasy.
He accomplished his aim.
David had a love for Key West history. What to name his Ballast Key home? Easy. Hemingway House.
The story is David fed his guests at Ballast Key hot dogs, wine and potato chips. The laborers working on the house, chocolate pudding and souffles from the Pier House kitchen. Transported on David’s private barge.
David was known world wide. Many came to visit David and Key West. Better stated, they came to enjoy time with David while seeing Key West. David the attraction.
David entertained at Ballast Key. Major figures. Most if not all his friends. The likes of Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, British Prime Minister Edward Heath, Prince Michael of Greece, Gloria Estefan, Rudolph Nureyev and the Bee Gees. Last but not least, the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, and Mellons.
Again, all were fed hot dogs, wine and potato chips.
A Kress Five and Dime was located on Duval Street. David and a small number of friends bought the building. Three stories. David had a penthouse apartment constructed for himself on the third floor. The Parole Board was on the second floor. Kress, the first. The Kress portion later became Fast Buck Freddie’s.
David’s fame brought him some not unpleasant notoriety.
The novel License To Kill has 007 calling David to say, “David, it’s James Bond…I’ve broken into your island. I hope you don’t mind.”
Town & Country magazine carried a Man Of The Month section. In 1955, David was the March Man of the Month. Cary Grant the April Man of the Month.
Grant was in good company.
David worked diligently to preserve the best of old Key West. He is primarily responsible for the lack of high rises. He worked vigorously to prevent high rise buildings.
Charity wise, David was a giver. A concerned individual. Teachers an example. In 2000, he set up a Teacher Merit Awards Fund. Each year, $25,000 is given to 1 teacher and $5,000 each to nine. Recognition of the outstanding teachers of the given year. David was of the opinion that teachers had to be nurtured and protected.
David Wolkowsky. A legend in his own time. Owed so much. Asked nothing in return. His goal to create a better Key West. He did. His stamp on everything.