Historic Key West school is sold, along with fond memories

Pausing at 812 Southard St., in the middle of a postcard-perfect Old Town Key West residential neighborhood, two things are clear.

First, the Harris School, dedicated July 4, 1909, was once a beautiful, proud structure. Second, after more than a decade of mostly disuse and little maintenance, she is now merely a dilapidated shell of passed grandeur.

On July 28, 2009, just weeks after the school's centennial, the Monroe County School Board voted 4-1, with Debra Walker dissenting, to sell the building to developer Peter Brawn for $4.25 million.

The Jeptha Vinning Harris School, named after a Confederate Civil War veteran and educator, replaced the three-story wooden Sears School on Free School Alley off the 500 block of Simonton Street as the only public school in the Southernmost City just after the turn of the 20th Century.

"It was the public school," county Historian Tom Hambright said.

Marion Percy Geiger was the first principal of the Harris School, which had kids in grades one through 12. The first graduates, the class of 1909, were Mariam Russell and Jennie Lewin, followed in 1910 by Israel Baez and, in 1911, Myrtle Archer, Carrie Hertell, Florine Cook, Hazel Harris, Ella Skelton and Julius Pearlman.

Following the completion in 1915 of the Truman School, at the current site of the Harvey Government Center on Truman Avenue, formerly Division Street, the high school was moved from Harris. The Truman School, named for President Truman, was then called the Division Street Grammar School.

From then until 1982, the Harris School served as the elementary for Old Town residents. After operation as a grade school ceased, the Harris School was used as the district's alternative school site and as an office for various social service and government offices.

Sally Smith, who now works for the School District in the administrative offices, remembers being part of the final class that graduated from Harris in 1982.

"It was a true majestic structure," she said. "It was overwhelming to be a little person looking out the windows, going up the grand staircases, looking at the wrought iron.... It was something."

Smith recalled how she and her schoolmates would eat Spanish limes from the tree that bordered the school property and Carsten Lane, and how all of the doors to the various verandas were always left open to catch the breeze in lieu of air conditioning.

"I learned how to make sun tea on the back porch with pickle jars."

"Our school pictures were taken outside by the kapok trees," Smith recalls.

She was underneath those same trees in 2007. On official district business, she watched as the Monroe County Association for ReMARCable Citizens left the building in 2007, moving to the old May Sands School.

"It was very heartbreaking. I had to drop off something when MARC was leaving. I called my husband crying because of the deterioration. She was so grand and majestic and now she's an old, distraught woman. Hopefully they'll bring her back to her splendor."

The Harris School's lot cost just $16,000 and the building cost just $42,000 construct. It's a masonry structure and sits within the city's historic district, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. As far as architectural significance, the Harris School is most often compared to the iconic brick Custom House at the bottom of Whitehead Street.

"It's quite unique," Hambright said, "and of course, it's sitting there in the residential area and the neighbors don't want to see a big development there."

It's not clear what Brawn's plans are for the property; he is in Argentina and couldn't be reached for comment.

He was a cruise ship physician in the 1980s and 1990s and operated an online pharmacy called Prescriptions Key West from 2001 until 2005, according to a friend and former business partner.