In the southernmost city in America, bird lovers come home to roost in the Audubon House, where the famed naturalist's works recall another era.
The Florida Keys are for the birds.
At least John James Audubon thought so. When the naturalist, gifted for drawing bird life, visited the Keys and the Dry Tortugas in 1832, he was thrilled to find so many new species.
Engravings of the 19 new birds he sighted in Florida became part of Audubon's The Birds of America, his mammoth portfolio of North American bird engravings. Standing more than 3 feet tall, the folio _ referred to as a double elephant folio because of its enormous size _ is considered the largest book in the world, containing 435 color plates of some of the most exquisite drawings of birds ever made.
But don't worry. You don't have to turn elephantine pages to see Audubon's depictions of those Florida birds. The first editions of all 19 of them are on display in the Audubon House at 205 Whitehead St. here, and you can view them during the self-guided tours, daily.
Drawings of the birds from the Keys and other parts of North American that were drawn by Audubon, including the great white heron, the roseate spoonbill and the Key West Dove, line the hallways and staircases. And just to the left of the canopied, four-poster, Chippendale bed in the master bedroom is one of Audubon's most popular engravings: the white-crowned pigeon, sitting on the bough of a Geiger tree.
Audubon never slept in that bed, mind you. The artist never even stepped into the 19th century house that now bears his name (although Audubon is said to have enjoyed the surrounding tropical garden while visiting the estate of Dr. Benjamin B. Strobel next door). The owner of the so-called Audubon House, a harbor pilot turned wreck-salvager named John Huling Geiger, never even met the naturalist.
But the house is a treasure trove for bird lovers. In addition to the 19 Audubon engravings of Florida birds, the site boasts 10 more Audubon first editions and a collection of delicate Worcester Royal Porcelain birds by British artist Dorothy Doughty.
There is also a gallery where visitors can buy their own Audubon prints. And in the adjoining gift shop, bird aficionados also can buy puzzles of red egrets, coasters graced with Carolina parrots, coat hangers in the shape of flamingos or a T-shirt bearing the likeness of the white-crowned pigeon on a Geiger tree.
The Geiger tree, named for the wreck-salvager, is native to the Keys. There's one on the Geiger property even today, just in front of the house's wrap-around porch. But don't picture Audubon sitting on that verandah, hoping the white-crowned pigeon stays put. Audubon never drew his birds on site. He gathered specimens, shooting a minimum of a hundred birds each day in order to get enough to serve as models.
The backdrops were added later by artists Audubon hired for that purpose. The reproduction of the town of Key West that serves as a backdrop for his engraving of the great white heron, for example, was done by George Lehman.
And as long as we're into full disclosure, Geiger never slept in that four-poster, either. None of the furniture, in fact, is original to the house. But the 18th century and early 19th century antiques _ an octagonal Chinese tea caddy, a sewing necessaire in the shape of a globe, and a Biedermeier secretary desk _ are just the kind of booty Geiger would have salvaged from ships wrecked on the nearby Florida reef.
The self-guided tour at the Audubon House, assisted by a headset and a tape recorder that can be stopped at any time to allow for a leisurely visit, comes clean about all these historical twists. On the tape you will not only meet Geiger, but his 11-year-old son, William Joseph, his 10-year-old daughter, Lizzie, and his wife, Lucretia. They talk about life in this airy clapbard house at a time of pirates, shipwrecks and no air conditioning.
Don't forget to stroll around the surrounding lush gardens, sometimes visited by hawks, doves, woodpeckers and ruby-throated hummingbirds. You may even see a white-crowned pigeon, a somewhat shy Key bird, alight on that Geiger tree in front of the house, just like in Audubon's print on the second floor.
IF YOU GO
The Audubon House is open 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily (closed Christmas and New Year's Day). The self-guided tour of the house and gardens is $8.50 for adults; $7.50 for seniors, $5 for students, $3.50 for children 6-12; free to those younger than 6.
For more information, contact the house at (305) 294-2116; e-mail to audubon1conch.net. The Web Site is http://www.audubonhouse.com.