Restoring Key West

Bert Bender – Preserving Key West’s Historical Buildings

by J.M. Garlock

Key West has action and it has mystery. I went there for a different reason. Restoration is in Bert Bender’s blood. “I grew up in a construction family,” said Bert founder of Key West-based Bender and Associates Architects that has been instrumental the in the restoration and preservation of many of the cities most treasured historical sites.  Bert’s projects include iconic structures such as the Key West Lighthouse. Custom House, Gato Cigar Building, the Southernmost Faith and Prayer Center Church, Fort East Martello Museum and numerous private residences.  He is the recipient of many prestigious awards including those from the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation and the Historic Florida Keys Foundation.  “My father was a plumber and my grandfather was a carpenter.  Education was important to my family.  My father immigrated to the United States in 1922 at the age of 22, obtained an 8th grade diploma and went to work during the Depression.  Encouraged by my parents to attend college and having taken drafting classes in hgh school, I decided on a major in architecture, and found that it was something I enjoyed and had a talent for.”

Bert studied architecture at the Urbana campus of the University of Illinois. After obtaining his degree he interned with visionary architect Paolo Soleri at Arcosanti in northern Arizona.  “During my fifth year at the University of Illinois we were charged with designing a satellite community on a 1 mile square site south of Urbana, Illinois. I was one of two students who designed a mega structure, leaving the bulk of the site natural as farmland with recreational opportunities. Shortly thereafter I attended an exhibit in Chicago on Paolo Soleri’s project, Arcosanti. Conceptually, my project was a smaller version of Paolo’s visionary city. I signed up for a 6 week workshop and stayed for close to a year.

“Arcosanti, a city in the image of man, is an urban experiment. Conceptually it is the antithesis of urban sprawl.  Arcosanti was designed on 8 acres of an 860 acre site, with the open space dedicated to farmland and untouched landscapes that would support the natural environment. The structures were efficiently designed and residences were small. This approach reduces our reliance on the automobile since all of your necessary functions are housed within this 8 acre community. All of the circulation within the City can be accommodated by walking or common pedestrian orientated transportation elements such as escalators, elevators or moving sidewalks. This eliminates any need for an automobile unless you are leaving the city. All of this has obvious environmental benefits: a lower carbon footprint because of a reduction in manufacturing of materials, reduced reliance on the internal combustion engine, reduced energy consumption through smaller spaces to condition, and the use of both passive and active solar systems.”

Bert explained how Arcosanti, Key West and Chicago’s inner city where he grew up, places that are on the surface couldn’t be more different are all organically connected. “Arcosanti was originally envisioned as a prototype city for 3,000 people but that population was never realized. Over the years revisions were made to the original design, so Arcosanti can be considered a living urban experiment. The population, when workshops are in session, is perhaps several hundred. But even then the density of Arcosanti as designed, is comparible at 375 people per acre. More importantly there are significant similarities between Arcosanti and inner city neighborhoods of cities developed during the 19th century, although Paolo would disagree. The historic areas of Chicago, New York or Key West are similar in that all of the functions necessary for a full and active lifestyle, housing, work, shopping, restaurants, parks, entertainment are available without the use of an automobile. Of course Arcosanti is more compact so there is less infrastructure, but the convenience and social interaction experiences are similar.”

Bender and Associates was founded in 1975 in the northern Arizona city of Flagstaff and relocated to Key West in 1985. The firm size has varied over the years to as large as 8 full time employees. Currently there are 4 full time employees. “My wife wanted to be closer to her family,” said Bert. “She has a sister here and her mother was in Delray Beach but professionally I had the opportunity to do more historic preservation work.”

Bert elucidated his design philosophy, how and why it has evolved over the years and why it is important for Key West (and by implication, other cities) to restore and preserve its architectural heritage. “Every design should reflect the environment. Whether historic, urban, rural or natural, each building or public space should respond to its context. Buildings that scream ‘look at me’ are out of place. If I design a new building and it blends in, then it was a success. If 50 or 100 years from now, someone says, ‘that’s a nice building, I’ll restore it,’ then that project was a success.

“If anything my design philosophy has evolved. I have always produced environmentally sensitive designs. In the 1970’s and 1980’s we designed buildings that used passive and active solay systems, were oriented to capitalize on natural ventilation and sunlight, all the things that the US Green Building Council encourages through their LEED certification program. We didn’t talk about it, we just did it, because it was a good design and the right thing to do. But if it takes a certificate from the USGBC to get people to act, I’m all for it.”

The increase of tourism and various festivals not withstanding Key West like many cities is under a tangible amount of fiscal distress. The preservation and restoration of old buildings is sometimes regarded as an egotistical indulgence or an unnecessary and wasteful expense. These structures, in the opinion of some are nothing more than antiquated relics of the past and while not without their charm are not deserving of the considerable necessary funds that could be better spent elsewhere.  “The restoration and preservation of our historic buildings and the historic built environment is one of the most important legacies that we can leave for future generations,” explained Bert.  “These buildings and urban centers are a link to our part, which forms our identity and bonds us together as a society. These historic urban centers are environmentally sensitive in that they are much more efficient than urban sprawl. Live, work, entertainment and social opportunities are all within close proximity, eliminating, or at least minimizing, our reliance on the automobile. The restoration of an historic building is one of the most sustainable activities available to the construction industry. There are huge amounts of energy embodies within the materials of our buildings including manufacture, transportation and construction. Using more energy to demolish these buildings is ludicrous. But more significantly how we treat our cultural resources speaks volumes to the future generations about who we were. Key West, and most historic cities for that matter, has a rich cultural heritage. Preserving that heritage through historic preservation will educate future generations about us as a society and the values that we cherish.”

Being environmentally sensitive is also very important to Bert and plays an important role in his philosophy.  “There has been an ongoing discussion about global warming and how human activities have contributed to the problem. That discussion almost always focuses on the internal combustion engine, oil and coal. We blame the automobile and seek out ‘feel good’ solutions such as electric and hybrid cars, yet the construction industry from the harvesting of raw materials, manufacturing process, heating, cooling and eventually demolition, does far more damage to the environment than the automobile. Paolo Soleri recognized this, preaches Arcology and started an urban experiment called Arcosanti. In a sense he is the godfather of the modern environmental movement (no pun intended). The USGBC’s LEED program calls attention to the issue, but too many people treat it as a feel good solution, parking their hybrid car in the preferred space at the building entrance, when the true environmentally sensitive approach is to walk, or at least park in the first space as you enter the parking lot and walk to the building.”

All of the designs inherent in the historical preservations Bert has been involved with (and those he hasn’t) have a genuine and substantial affect on people even if they are unaware of it.  “Where is it written that we must be educated about design or design philosophies to appreciate our environment and the life that surrounds us?” asked Bert. “I spend time every year camping in the wilderness waterway of the Everglades, and the mountains and desert around northern Arizona. I can’t name all of the trees, plants or birds that I see but that doesn’t diminish the experience or my enjoyment of the peace and serenity of the place. Our historic cities, Key West and Chicago among them, are about the total experience, convenience and vitality of living there. Buildings are only one part of the equation. The Custom House, the Lighthouse, the Lighthouse Keeper’s Quarters and the Gato Building are all great restorations and I’m proud of them. But their greatness lies in the context, their contribution to the history and urban fabric of Key West. They are a part of the whole. Remove them from Key West, plop them down in a southern Illinois cornfield or the Arizona desert and they would be out of place. They would just be buildings.”

During the course of his still-flourishing career Bert has faced many challenges and garnered many rewards.  No doubt there will be more in the future.  “The most rewarding and the most challenging,” he said, “are the buildings that would have been lost if it hadn’t been for my intervention. Those are the buildings that few people care about; the ones that people think are beyond repair. I am currently involved in trying to save the American Legion Hall in Bahama Village. Built in 1953, it was an all Black post constructed in response to segregation of the military during and following Word War II, since Blacks were not allowed to join all white posts. The building has been closed, technically condemned as unsafe, by the City’s Code Enforcement office. The building is an important community center for the people of Bahama Village and saving it is an important part of their heritage. We have been able to list the building individually on the National Register of Historic Places and are trying to fund the restoration. There are possibilities for grants but all of them have conditions, issues and red tape. If we are successful that project would be added to the ‘challenging and rewarding’ list.”