K​ey West Literary Seminar acquires former home of Elizabeth Bishop

November 13, 2019: We’re excited to announce a major acquisition and a new chapter in the life of Key West Literary Seminar.

We’ve purchased the former home of celebrated American poet Elizabeth Bishop at 624 White Street. The 19th-century eyebrow house is a registered Literary Landmark and one of Key West’s most important literary sites. Our goal is to restore and preserve the house to the way it was when Bishop lived there in the 1930s and 1940s.

Bishop is part of our DNA as an organization. I​t’s both an honor and a serious responsibility to become the home’s new owners​.​ T​his acquisition will expand our reach and visibility, while deepening our connection to Key West. As we work to restore and preserve the Elizabeth Bishop House and make it the public face of our commitment to Key West’s literary heritage, we will achieve our mission to a degree that has not previously been possible.

Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979)

  • United States Poet Laureate, 1949-50
  • Winner of the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, 1950
  • Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, 1956
  • Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, 1966-79
  • National Book Award winner, 1970
  • National Book Critics Circle Award & Neustadt International Prize, 1976

Elizabeth Bishop and 624 White Street, Key West

Elizabeth Bishop arrived in Key West in 1937, at 25 years old, still trying to find her way in the world. Key West was inexpensive then; she rented her first apartment across the street from the county jail for only $4 a week. And it was utterly unlike the world she knew from her youth in New England and Nova Scotia. Bishop marveled at the Magnificent Frigatebirds soaring overhead, the lizards scurrying underfoot, and the mangoes and guavas ripening on the trees.

She was equally intrigued by Key West’s idiosyncratic architecture; in “Florida Deserta,” a poem published after her death, Bishop compares the island’s tin-shingled roofs to the scales of tarpon rolling beneath the surface of the water. She bought the 1890s-era eyebrow house at 624 White Street in 1938, for $2,000, with financial support from her romantic partner Louise Crane. “We consider its lines to be the most elegant thing in Key West,” she explained to her friend, the literary critic T.C. Wilson. “The house seems perfectly beautiful to me, inside and out,” she wrote to her friend and mentor, Marianne Moore.

Her biographer Thomas Travisano notes that “Bishop’s poetic style underwent a significant and lasting transformation” during her years on White Street. Captivated by what she viewed as the exotic character of Key West, Bishop learned to harness her powers of close and concentrated observation, in the service of poems that have inspired generations of readers. She sold the house to Lisbeth Weymouth in 1946, having written many of the poems that would appear, later that year, in her landmark debut collection, North & South.

The house stayed in the Weymouth family for more than 70 years. Then, in 2019, 40 years after Bishop’s death, Key West Literary Seminar acquired 624 White Street, the first of the “three loved houses” whose loss she had mourned in her poem “One Art.”

Now, our work — to restore this national treasure and preserve it as it was when Bishop lived here — begins.

Elizabeth Bishop standing with her bicycle in front of a coconut palm in Key West, ca. 1937. (Elizabeth Bishop Papers, Vassar College.)

Capital Campaign

A five-year capital campaign to raise $2.25 million is now underway. This amount will fully pay off the mortgage for 624 White Street and complete the restoration and preservation projects needed for the home to become our new headquarters.

Our early efforts received a major boost thanks to a $300,000 challenge grant and full financing for the $1.2 million purchase from the Helmerich Trust. All contributions up to $300,000 received by March 31, 2020 will be matched 1:1 by the Helmerich Trust.

Matthew Helmerich, a spokesperson for the Trust, explains: “The Helmerich Trust has supported Key West Literary Seminar and its programs for nearly a decade. Their purchase of the Bishop House broadens their reach and potential impact, and our contribution reflects that transformative potential. We wanted to appeal not only to serious scholars, but to anyone who has ever fallen in love with an Elizabeth Bishop poem, or known what it was like to be a young person finding their way in the world. The Bishop House isn’t just an artifact. It’s a vital site that shaped the work of one of the 20th century’s most esteemed writers. ​Now it will become the living, functioning home for Key West Literary Seminar. That feels like a perfect fit for us.”

A view of Elizabeth Bishop's dining room at 624 White St., with built-in bookcases she added, looking out into the backyard.

Support the restoration of the Elizabeth Bishop House in Key West

Your tax-deductible contribution will help restore and preserve this national treasure.

The Bishop House will become the physical embodiment of our mission — to promote the understanding and discussion of important literary works and their authors; to recognize and support new voices in American literature; and to preserve and promote Key West’s literary heritage while providing resources that strengthen literary culture.

All donations up to $300,000 received before March 31, 2020, will be matched 1:1 by the Helmerich Trust.

Donate online

Write a check

And mail it to:

Key West Literary Seminar
717 Love Lane, Key West, FL 33040

Transfer Stock

Broker: Vanguard
DTC#: 0062
Account#: 77891098
For Benefit Of: Key West Literary Seminar
Broker Telephone: 800-284-7245

Fine print

Key West Literary Seminar is recognized by the IRS as a tax-exempt charitable institution under Section 501(c)(3) and all contributions are deductible for federal income tax purposes. Our federal tax ID is 59-2807058. Key West Literary Seminar has complied with the registration requirements of Chapter 496, Florida Statutes, the Solicitation of Contributions Act. Registration Number: CH34555. A copy of the official registration and financial information may be obtained from the Division of Consumer Services by calling toll-free within the state 1-800-435-7352 or online at www.FloridaConsumerHelp.com. Registration does not imply endorsement, approval, or recommendation by the State.

Questions?

Contact Arlo Haskell, Executive Director
305-293-9291
[email protected]