It is the very definition of the American Dream: a penniless immigrant boy, inspired by tales of wealth and wonder, sets off to seek his fortune on American soil, where, after much hard work, he becomes a self-made millionaire, lives in a mansion that looks like a wedding cake and eventually dies as the richest man in the state.
Written out chronologically, the life of William Curry is almost too cinematic, too cliché, to be believable. It is a bootstrap powered tale of guile and capitalist triumph over circumstance. Born a Bahamian on Sept. 11, 1821, Curry grew up hearing stories of the immense fortunes a man could make in nearby Key West. He traveled to the southernmost island as a hungry 15-year-old in the hopes of making a better life for himself.
The Key West of Curry’s youth bore little resemblance to the bustling tourist mecca that it is today. The island’s economy was ruled largely by the wrecking industry; thanks to its prime location at the mouth of the Florida Straits, Key West became a hot spot for shipwrecked merchant ships, whose precious cargo could be salvaged by watchful citizens for immense profit, meaning that by the time Curry arrived in Key West in 1836, the island was the richest, per capita, of any city in America.
Curry first found work as an office boy, and in exchange for one dollar a week plus room and board, began to work his way up in the business world, rising to clerk of the U.S. quartermaster, then later to be named partner in a firm he would eventually take over completely in 1861. He had a keen eye for business, and over the course of his career amassed an unprecedented fortune through a mix of local mercantile interests, wrecking, shipbuilding and stock and bond investments.
Together with his wife, Euphemia, Curry raised eight children, three of whom went on to assume the mantle of their father’s business under the renamed William Curry’s Sons banner. At the time of his death on Jan. 24, 1896, Curry’s estate was estimated to be worth $1.5 million, making him both the richest man in Florida and the state’s first self-made millionaire.
During his reign as Key West’s resident Daddy Warbucks, Curry and his family amassed a fair amount of enviable real estate, but none so grand as the Curry Mansion, an impressive abode of wood and brick that still rests majestically atop its lot on Caroline Street like a sugar-dusted gingerbread house. Originally finished in 1869, the home was almost completely demolished in 1905 — only the original stone hearth and a bricked chimney remain — and rebuilt in the Georgian revival style at the direction of Curry’s son, Milton, by then a partner in his father’s business. With its decorative carved wooden interiors, sprawling three-floor square footage, and distinctive widow’s walk, the mansion has since its completion drawn the envious eyes of all those fortunate to stand in its immense shadow.
After Curry’s death, ownership of the mansion passed from Curry’s immediate family to a series of cousins and private owners, until it eventually passed into the hands of Dr. Brooks Talton. Talton began lengthy refurbishments of the property, opening it up to tour groups as part of the Old Island Days celebration even as he used the mansion as his private home until 1971, after which the building fell empty. Over the course of the next four years, the 22 rooms of the Curry Mansion remained unoccupied, and the property fell into disrepair.
By 1975, while on an evening stroll, yachting couple Edith and Al Amsterdam laid eyes on the Curry Mansion and were dazzled by the glittering of its crystal chandeliers, just visible inside the building’s darkened windows. Edith, who could not help but notice the “For Sale” sign hung outside its gate, was smitten.
That much of Milton Curry’s rebuild had relied on Dade County pine, a once abundant, highly resinous hardwood from which most of South Florida’s remaining historic homes and buildings are built, saved the home from having fallen to complete ruin during its inactive years. Nevertheless, by the time the Amsterdams had laid eyes on the building’s fairytale façade, it was clear the property would require extensive renovations, the eventual high cost of which inspired the Amsterdam family to pivot from their original plans for the home: Instead of using the building as a personal residence, mused Amsterdam’s son, why not revamp the mansion into a stately bed and breakfast?
Together, Edith and her husband embarked upon a new adventure: transforming the once stately private residence into a business. The couple were able to restore much of the home’s priceless interior finishes, including lavishly decorative bird’s eye maple woodwork. Amsterdam’s Curry Mansion, as it later become known, is today one of Key West’s most enduring and charming historic inns.
Thanks to its mythical provenance and dedication to old world-style hospitality (staff are reportedly the most courteous in town, while daily happy hours are always accompanied by live music) it remains one of the most awarded and often-booked properties in Key West, a particular favorite among history buffs and key lime pie aficionados (legend has it the daughter-in-law of William Curry was the first to whip up the now ubiquitous tart treat in the mansion’s historic stone kitchen).
Though her stewardship of the property ended in February 2016 when, at 91, she passed away, Edith Amsterdam’s reign as the mansion’s proprietress and caretaker has become as legendary as that of Curry’s himself. ¦
The Amsterdam’s Curry Mansion Inn 511 Caroline St. 305- 294- 5349 or 800- 253- 3466 www.currymansion.com