How David Wolkowsky became Mr. Key West
The southernmost private island in the United States, owned since the 1970s by the late Key West philanthropist and visionary David Wolkowsky, will be preserved as part of the Key West National Wildlife Refuge under an agreement struck after decades of negotiations.
Wolkowsky, who died in September at 99, agreed last summer to donate the tiny gem of an island through a complicated two-part transaction that gave it initially to The Nature Conservancy and then to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The two groups will co-manage the island for marine and coastal research and education, while preserving its natural resources, including critical habitat for sea turtles, birds, butterflies and fish. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working to rename the island, from Ballast Key to “David Wolkowsky Key,” a five-year process.
The 14-acre property eight miles west of Key West — deep in the heart of the wildlife refuge — was known among locals as “David’s island,” a recognition of the man they called Mr. Key West for his far-reaching influence in shaping Key West as a tourist destination while preserving the character that drew artists and writers.
It was much sought-after because it was the last remaining privately held island in the wildlife refuge, the “final piece” of the 375-square-mile expanse of crystalline blue waters that includes the Marquesas and 13 other keys. The refuge was established in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt as a preserve and breeding ground for nesting wading birds and other wildlife.
The donation is a mammoth one. A few years ago, Wolkowsky decided to test the market by putting the solar-powered, subtropical refuge — which includes a modern stilt house, a guest house and a workshop — up for sale. He set the price at $15.8 million. It likely would have fetched a little less on the open market — but even that’s just a guess because there’s simply nothing else like it.
Now, under the agreement announced Tuesday, Wolkowsky’s island will be protected, used only to further research of the natural world.
The announcement marks the end of a years-long Key West guessing game, fueled in part by Wolkowsky himself: What will happen to David’s island?
“It was the very last meeting, right before he passed away, that he had the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service donation agreement in front of him and he said, ‘OK, I’m ready to do it,’ ” said Chris Bergh, the conservancy’s South Florida program manager. “It was a very moving moment that we had won his trust after decades of effort. And we were going to make his vision of the island come true.”
Bergh, who grew up in Key West, said Wolkowsky first started talking with the wildlife refuge in the ‘90s about donating the land. When Bergh began working for the conservancy in 1996, he continued the talks during 30-some meetings that meandered over a wide variety of topics.
“We would meet at his home on Key West and talk, not just about the donation of Ballast Key but also whatever else was on his mind — old Key West, and some commiseration about new Key West. He was always interested in art, and his home in Key West was a bit like an art museum, filled with art and antiquities. I’d pick his brain about the Key West I grew up in, the hotels he built. It was so much fun for me to get to know David and really just soak in his vision for the island.”
With the donation, the island, with its improbable lighthouse-inspired home jutting from the coral rock like a mirage from the sea, will remain pretty much the way Wolkowsky left it: a home to wading birds and sea turtles, a white-sand oasis dotted with weathered statues and palms. Mangroves will still frame the views he cherished, with empty blue sky blending into endless turquoise water. But it will also have its share of visitors.
That’s how Wolkowsky, a Panama-hatted visionary with an auteur’s appreciation for beauty, wanted it. Though he had long talked of donating the property to make sure it would be preserved, he also wanted people to see it and appreciate it.
“From the way the tides flow through the flats to the glimmers of migrating tarpon, this place was David’s home,” his family said Tuesday. “He wanted it protected for generations to come. We’re honored to help carry out his legacy.”
His legacy also included donating his art collection to the Key West Art and Historical Society, and the continuation of a Key West teachers’ scholarship program, his grandnephew, Joseph Lipsky, said.
“Key West was David’s life and everything he did in his life — and now that he’s gone, too — was to show just how much he loved it,” Lipsky said.
He built his house on the island out in the refuge over a period of years while managing the property in an environmentally sensitive way. A steadfast supporter of artists and writers, he delighted in showcasing its natural splendor to select visitors including Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, British Prime Minister Edward Heath, Nancy Sinatra, Leonard Bernstein and Prince Michael of Greece. An invitation to lunch on the island was usually his signature mix of high and low: hotdogs but also stone crabs, potato chips and then a chocolate soufflé for dessert — all while pointing out a passing sea bird or the way the sun glinted on the water.
“David Wolkowsky was keenly aware of Theodore Roosevelt’s conservation vision for the Florida Keys and wanted his legacy to be a part of that,” said Leopoldo Miranda, regional director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s southeast region.
The island is home to many imperiled and endangered species of native plants and wildlife, and the shallow waters that surround the key include a healthy coral reef ecosystem. The area from Ballast Key to the west, toward the Marquesas region, is remote, and a research facility on the key will offer more access for scientists.
And there will be a lot for scientists to study, Bergh noted. Wolkowsky’s island supports great white herons, migratory birds such as the piping plover, raptors of all kinds and shorebirds. Nearby, white-crowned pigeons nest on mangroves and sea turtle habitat is abundant for green turtles, hawksbills and loggerheads. A rare butterfly, the Miami blue, is found on more remote islands, but a research station provided by Wolkowsky will give scientists a much shorter boat ride.
“David Wolkowsky’s incredible generosity and dedication to this special island ensures lasting protection and a legacy of conservation, which will benefit nature and wildlife, scientists, students, and the Florida Keys community,” said Temperince Morgan, executive director of the conservancy in Florida.