Historic Tavernier Hotel reopens

The Tavernier Hotel is open for business again, and its latest owners hope the historic inn will succeed by offering the rarest of Keys finds — clean, comfortable rooms for less than $100 a night in a building steeped in local history.

The two-story hotel at 91865 Overseas Hwy. was purchased early this year by vacation rental company Keys Caribbean and has since received a light redo — new linens, mattresses, small, flat-panel televisions and the like — that compliments a bigger renovation done by a previous owner.

The hotel’s accommodations go for $69 to $99 a night, general manager Rob Bulkiewicz says. The 17 rooms offer a mix of queen, king and double beds.

“I think it’s a great value-priced room for weekenders or people passing through on their way to Key West. I think it will do very, very well,” said Craig Hunt, Keys Caribbean’s chief executive officer and a veteran of the hotel business.

Historic hub

The Tavernier Hotel is part of a complex that dates back to the community’s days as a fishing camp, when pineapples were harvested just up the road.

Originally built as a theater, the Tavernier Hotel was once the center of a shopping mecca envisioned and constructed by H. S. “Mac” McKenzie, who moved to the area from Miami in 1928 and went into business with the original Standard Oil man, O.M. Woods.

The Monroe County Property Appraiser’s records indicate the buildings were built in 1936, after the 1935 Labor Day hurricane. But Upper Keys historian Jerry Wilkinson says they were built several years earlier. In fact, Wilkinson says, the concrete-block Tavernier Hotel was used by the American Red Cross after that storm that devastated the Upper Keys.

“Almost everything that my grandfather built survived the 1935 storm,” said David Byrum, whose mother, Joanne McMillan, is McKenzie’s daughter.

Byrum and cousin Greg McKenzie have heard the stories about how their grandfather turned downtown Tavernier into a commercial hub back in the day when all the activity was over on water’s edge.

As Wilkinson describes it on his website, “[McKenzie] practically built the Tavernier that developed around the railroad depot. Along with the bulk storage tanks, he also built a gas station, an icehouse, tavern store, drugstore, grocery store, hardware store, auto repair garage, lumber company and theater.”

McKenzie was truly “a businessman before his times,” Wilkinson said, describing the complex as a place where people could park their cars and get all their shopping done, plus a bite to eat or a drink.

“It was decades before anyone else did that” in the Upper Keys, he said.

McKenzie also advanced the community in other ways. He installed electric service — limited to at most 10 hours of a day — for local residents.

“Right behind the hotel, in the parking area, was the original generator,” Byrum said. “It was called ‘Old Hessie.’”

McKenzie likely built the theater to cater to the crews of men, mostly World War I veterans, who were building the highway. Wilkinson said he hasn’t pinpointed the exact year when it was converted to a hotel, but he’s sure it was before 1939.

McKenzie sold the properties on that side of the highway — Byrum and cousin Greg McKenzie think it was in the 1950s — but he continued his construction company and his Standard Oil storage and distribution business, which lives on today as McKenzie Petroleum-Chevron.

Old with the new

State and county records show the property changing hands several times over the last decade or so. The property appraiser’s website shows it last sold in March 2010 for $2.3 million. Prior to that, it had sold for $2.75 million in February 2006.

Hunt says the property was in foreclosure when Keys Caribbean purchased it. It came to his attention through the bank that financed his purchase last year of the Conch Harbor marina complex in Key West.

Bulkiewicz said the hotel’s light redo was just the first phase of a series of renovation projects the company plans. Landscaping and work on the courtyard are next.

Hunt said he’d like to see the complex’s buildings look and feel a lot more like they did in its early days — plus modern-day conveniences, of course, like 24 hours of electricity. He and Bulkiewicz have been talking to Wilkinson and the McKenzie family to flesh out the history, and they’re trying to figure out how to spotlight it within the buildings.

The original sundry store, turned drugstore, two doors up from the hotel, was more recently the Copper Kettle restaurant. Hunt said a local couple is leasing the restaurant from his company and plans to reopen it by November. It’s getting a facelift now that will better tie it into the hotel. He said it will serve breakfast and light lunch — perfect for his hotel’s guests — and will specialize in pastries and coffee.

During Prohibition, the Tavernier Tea Room — now Keys Caribbean’s Upper Keys office, down a door from the hotel — was the place where, “if you weren’t too suspicious looking, you could buy some alcohol,” Wilkinson said.

Hunt’s still not sure what will become of the now-vacant cottage that was once McKenzie’s Standard Oil station.

So far, Hunt and Bulkiewicz say, business at the hotel has been pretty good since its opening at the end of June.

The hotel’s small size hasn’t kept Hunt from putting it up on several online booking sites and adding it to Keys Caribbean’s central reservations system.

He’s counting on its historic nature and modest price point to attract guests — especially Europeans — and he’s banking on good service to keep them coming back. “The Keys are all about repeats and referrals,” Hunt said.