A Comfortable Step Back in Time: Adding Air Conditioning to the Hemingway Home

By Special Contributor posted 08-24-2016 16:51


By Dave Gonzales

Every year, thousands of visitors to the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum in Key West, Florida, enjoy seeing how the prolific author lived and wrote during the decade he spent there in the 1930s. Curators have meticulously maintained the stately two-story Spanish Colonial home, which retains original architectural features from 1851 and displays the Hemingway family’s furnishings and artifacts as they were when the author lived there.

One thing contemporary sightseers have not relished during their 30-minute tours is the stifling heat and humidity inside the home, especially in summer. The discomfort is so pronounced from July through September that at least one visitor used to faint every week. This is not an exaggeration.

The Hemingway Home and Museum in Key West, Florida. | Credit: Rob O'Neal Photography

Every preservationist knows that adding modern-day conveniences like air conditioning to a historic structure while at the same time maintaining architectural integrity is not without its challenges. However, the museum successfully addressed this issue in 2015 by installing a small-duct HVAC system—a technology that has been used to preserve historical accuracy in scores of buildings.

Origins of the Hemingway Home

The building was designed by Asa Tift, a ship architect and salvage wrecker. Tift had approximately 14 slaves, and they were likely his labor force for construction.

The home was built from hand-cut limestone excavated from beneath the structure. At about 16 feet above sea level, the estate is the second-highest point on the island of Key West. The house has survived many hurricanes and the deep basement has experienced little water damage, both of which are a testament to the quality of its construction.

When Ernest Hemingway and his wife, Pauline, purchased the home in 1931 for $8,000, it was in a state of neglect and disrepair. But the Hemingways appreciated the grand architecture and stateliness of the structure and embarked on a massive restoration and remodeling process. They added a carriage house with a caretaker's apartment on the second floor; a $20,000 pool; and an upstairs bathroom—the first on the island with running water, fed from a rain cistern on the roof.

Looking up at the ceiling in the basement, the main plenum forces conditioned air into small, insulated flexible ducts that feed into rooms throughout the house. | Credit: Hemingway Home and Museum 

Hemingway left Key West in 1940 when his marriage to Pauline ended, while she remained in the house until her death in 1951. Following Hemingway’s death 10 years later, his children sold the home to a local jewelry store owner, Bernice Dixon, who turned it into a museum in 1964. In 1968 it was designated a U.S. National Historic Landmark.

The house still contains the furniture that Hemingway and his family used. Hemingway’s personal collection of books and other documents are on display in both the main house and the carriage house he used as a writing studio. Preserving these artifacts in the sub-tropical, high-humidity conditions of Key West has required the constant use and monitoring of dehumidifiers in the home’s basement. While helpful, they didn’t sufficiently reduce humidity, especially on the second floor.

Beating the Heat

For many years strategic placement of room fans was seemingly the only option for providing museum visitors with some relief during tours. Any building modifications require approval from the Key West Historic Architectural Review Commission (HARC) and, because the museum is a National Historic Landmark, they also need to meet the aesthetic specifications of the National Park Service (NPS).

Round Unico wood outlets can be stained to match the decor, as in this wood-paneled ceiling. | Credit: The Unico System 

These regulations stipulate the use of original building materials and prohibit the removal of historic architectural features to accommodate air conditioning. Installing central air conditioning was out of the question, as it would have required adding drop ceilings and soffits that would disrupt the architectural integrity of the home. Window units would have been be equally destructive to the building’s character. The goal of keeping visitors cool by installing air conditioning did not seem realistic given the need to maintain period accuracy in the home.

A turning point came when the museum’s chief executive officer, Michael Morawski, spoke to colleagues at the Harry S. Truman Little White House, another historic property turned museum on Key West. The Little White House had installed the small-duct Unico System, which remains mostly hidden from view. The tubular, flexible ducting can snake through crawl spaces and wall and ceiling cavities where traditional metal ducting could never fit.

Round wooden floor outlets are stained to match the hardwood in the living room. | Credit: Hemingway Home and Museum 

The Hemingway Home worked with Unico engineers and a Miami HVAC contractor to launch the project. The manufacturer offers a variety of small round and slotted air vents, and round vents made of red oak matched the home’s floors. While plastic vents are more affordable, they wouldn’t have been approved by HARC or NPS. Metal vents may also have been met with opposition and certainly would have been more noticeable than the stained wood. The museum also worked with the contractor on creative solutions like hiding a return air box in a wooden bedroom cabinet retrofitted with louvered doors for airflow. The installer carved through the floor inside the cabinet for the intake air ducting.

The master bedroom closet on the second floor now houses a small vertical air handler, while the intake air box is installed in the bathroom closet. Normally pulling intake air through a bathroom violates building codes, but this bathroom has no running water, so after some explanations, building inspectors approved it.

Tourists barely notice the round HVAC outlets that blend into the decor. | Credit: Rob O'Neal Photography 

Since its installation in 2015, the central air conditioning system has brought comfort to our staff and guests and removed the humidity that can be damaging to the Hemingway books, artifacts, and memorabilia. The system also keeps utility costs down by removing 30 percent more humidity from the air than a conventional central air system, allowing the museum to set the thermostat a few degrees higher than with standard air conditioning and still provide a comfortable temperature.

The system operates quietly, which is important because the museum conducts guided tours for as many as 25 people every 20 minutes. Most importantly, no one is fainting during tours any more.

Dave Gonzales is the curator and media director for the Hemingway Home and Museum, overseeing information and artifacts displayed in the home and managing media relations.


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