Historian’s vision of a museum nearing reality in Islamorada

A rendering of the conference center that will house the Irving R. Eyster Museum of Florida Keys History in Islamorada.
A rendering of the conference center that will house the Irving R. Eyster Museum of Florida Keys History in Islamorada.

When Irving Eyster was about 5 years old, he opened his first museum, in the attic of his parents’ Indiana home. He took the keepsakes he’d collected on a recent family trip to Florida, carefully organized them and unveiled them for study by his young friends.

Even at that early age, the Islamorada resident was enamored with museums. He went on to a career as an archaeologist and an anthropologist and, after moving to the Keys midway through the last century, Eyster dedicated himself to chronicling the history of his new home.

One decades-old dream from that lifelong love affair — opening a Florida Keys history museum — will move another step close to reality with Monday’s groundbreaking for the Irving R. Eyster Museum of Florida Keys History.

The groundbreaking is ceremonial — a community celebration with local dignitaries wielding shovelfuls of dirt — but the real groundbreaking will begin soon after, as construction gets under way within a few days.

Eyster is president of the Matecumbe Historical Trust, which will operate the museum named in his honor. After years of fruitless searching for a suitable site, it’s almost hard to believe it’s really happening.

“It looks like now we’re really going to do it,” Eyster said last week, a few hours after visiting the site at the oceanside Islander Resort. “ It should move real fast. I hope it does, because I’ll be 93 in December.”

Backers hope the 15,366-square-foot, two-story museum and conference center will be able to celebrate its grand opening in the spring — perhaps May, says Richard Russell, the trust’s vice president and a member of one of Islamorada’s founding families.

Islander Resort, owned by David Curry, is bankrolling construction of the building; it will lease the museum space back to the trust for $1 a year. The trust needs to raise money to design and furnish the museum interior.

“This is an incredibly generous community,” Russell said. “They’ve always come through in the past, and my suspicion is they’ll come through here as well.”

Eyster says the museum’s exhibits will cover hundreds of years of Keys history, from the earliest Indians to the 20th century hurricanes that forever changed life in the Florida Keys. And it won’t be limited to information about the Upper Keys, said Eyster’s daughter, Barbara Edgar; instead, it will span Ocean Reef to Key West.

Eyster and other trust members and volunteers are working on cataloging hundreds of artifacts, a daunting and exhausting task in itself. Many of the artifacts come from Eyster’s personal collection, gathered during his six decades in the Keys; others will be donated or loaned to the museum.

Russell, who’s athletic director at Coral Shores High School, said the museum will include items from his family. “A number of the founding families have stepped forward with artifacts,” he said.

Edgar is enthusiastic about the high-tech Eye of the Storm theater, where the museum will show historic films and documentaries.

The trust said the exterior of the museum and conference center is designed to reflect traditional Florida Keys architecture. Expansive porches will face the ocean, and a lush garden will be to one side. The museum will occupy about half of the storm-resistant building, both upstairs and down, and feature themed rooms with both static and rotating exhibits.

The museum and conference center’s tilt-wall construction is being overseen by Craig Overholt of Overholt Construction of Key Largo and Brett Ekblom of Native Construction of Tavernier.

Making the dream reality

The Eyster family and other members of the trust spent years looking for a building to repurpose or a site on which to build the museum.

“We were spinning our wheels,” Russell said. “It was an exercise in frustration.”

But it was a chance conversation last year between a couple of longtime friends, Russell and former Islamorada Fish Co. owner George Hertel, that finally got the wheels rolling in the right direction.

Russell told Hertel it was time to make Eyster’s dream a reality, and asked Hertel if he could help. A few days later, Hertel was on the phone with his friend Curry.

Needed space

The resort — and Islamorada in general — has limited meeting space, and Curry had been talking about building a conference center on the northwest corner of the property. Out of that conversation with Hertel was born the idea of combining Eyster’s and Curry’s dreams.

“We’re going to build it. It’s going to happen,” said Hertel, estimating the cost of the building at more than $4 million.

“I’m very grateful to Mr. Curry,” Eyster said.

Hertel applauds Curry’s generosity and echoes Russell’s confidence that the community will come forward to finance the interior finishes of the museum portion.

The facility will serve as a focal point for Keys history and attract the kinds of group events for which Islamorada previously lacked the space. “We’ll all benefit,” Hertel said.

Judy Hull, executive director of the Islamorada Chamber of Commerce, confirmed that the 200-plus seat conference center is desperately needed.

Large meeting spaces are in short supply in Islamorada — even the chamber’s luncheons outgrew the Islander’s current meeting space — and the conference center and museum combo will give the chamber something new to tout as the group travel segment rebounds.

Hull said she and the chamber’s board and ambassadors would be on hand for Monday’s groundbreaking ceremony. It’s a long-overdue celebration of what promises to be a “huge addition to the community.”

She praised Eyster’s commitment to the Keys — and Islamorada in particular. “He’s laid the groundwork for so many things here,” she said.

Staying hands on

Eyster has called Matecumbe home since 1952, when he and wife Jeane decided to leave their first Keys’ home, Key West. “It was getting too crowded,” he likes to say. By contrast, Matecumbe was a sparsely populated beachfront paradise.

He’s always delighted to share nuggets of Keys history with others, often finding that even lifelong residents don’t have the full picture of the island chain’s unique and vibrant history.

Even as his 93rd birthday approaches and he foresees the realization of a lifelong dream, Eyster has no intention of retiring.

“I don’t think I can ever relax, especially when it comes to history and museums,” he said.

While the museum will have its own curator, Eyster plans to stay involved. The trust will continue, and perhaps expand, its monthly lecture series on Keys history in its new, larger venue.

Russell is quick to credit Jeane Eyster and Barbara Edgar’s “passion and persistence” for seeing Eyster’s museum dream to fruition.

“He’s committed a lifetime to preserving our Keys history,” Russell said. “It’s altogether proper that it bears his name.”