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Wolkowsky was just as eccentric as the island he loved.

Meghan Overdeep
October 1, 2018

Florida legend “Mr. Key West,” David Wolkowsky, passed away on September 23, Miami Herald reports. Wolkowsky, who spent most of his life helping to transform Key West into a colorful vacation destination, was 99 years old.

Since the 1960s, the Panama-hat-loving icon dedicated himself to rehabilitating the declining island by “renovating, restoring and even relocating the weathered buildings that created a quaint downtown for tourists and a haven for artists,” The Herald writes.

“David began to renovate those buildings and really, I think, was one of the main people responsible for the historic preservation movement and for showing people that Key West’s past, its history was worth saving, had a certain glamour to it, was beautiful,” Arlo Haskell, a local historian, told WLRN this week.

David Wolkowsky was born in Key West in 1919 and relocated to Miami with his family when he was four years old. Following college at University of Pennsylvania, he spent two decades working as architect in Philadelphia. When Wolkowsky was 42, his father died, and he inherited a handful of aging buildings in Key West, bringing him back to the place of his birth.

At a time when most communities where demolishing their sagging historical buildings, Wolkowsky decided to preserve them and invest in Key West’s declining Old Town. In 1968, he opened the Pier House, an iconic waterfront hotel where Jimmy Buffett played some of his first gigs. Wolkowsky also invited literary celebrities like Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote to the tiny island, slowly helping it to evolve from “a languid little island backwater to America’s quintessential resort for urban sophisticates,” the The Herald wrote in 2012.

Wolkowsky was just as eccentric as the island he so loved. The Washington Post reports that he rode around Key West in golf carts and a vintage Rolls-Royce. Up until his death, he owned the southernmost private home in the contiguous United States, where he famously served his guests potato chips and turkey dogs.

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When he wasn’t entertaining prominent guests, Wolkowsky was a busy man. Over the years he bought and restored the island’s original cigar factory and the Cuban ferry docks next to Mallory Square. He also helped rescue the old saloons of Hemingway fame and revitalized the old shops along Pirate’s Alley.

“I couldn’t bear to sit around and collect baseball cards,” he told The Herald. “If you’re not involved and enjoying what’s around you, you might as well get back in the book, like a leaf, and close it.”