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Aquarium History

Construction of the Key West Aquarium, a WPA project during the Great Depression, began in 1933.

Desired by many within the community, the design was prepared by Dr. Robert Van Deusen, then superintendent of Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park Aquarium. The idea was to attract visitors to the little island city, boost the local economy, and serve as a showroom for other aquariums wishing to feature Key West’s diverse native marine life in their own exhibits. It took two years to complete, and the concrete that was used to form the aquarium structure and holding tanks was mixed with seawater from the ocean, as fresh water was hard to come by in those days. Upon its opening in February 1935, just in time for the first official “Tourist Season,” the aquarium not only was a major attraction but had the honor of being the first open-air aquarium in the continental United States.

old photo of the key west aquarium entrance

At the time of opening, the price of admission was 15 cents for adults and 5 cents for children. One of the purposes of the Key West Aquarium was to be a clearing market for other aquariums around the country. Only seven months after opening, Labor Day of 1935, a major hurricane struck the Middle Keys and destroyed the Overseas Railroad and any hope for the Key West attraction’s success along with it. At the time, the Overseas Extension of the Florida East Coast Railroad was the only way to reach Key West besides by boat.

The Spanish-inspired architectural design of the building has gone through several changes in its life. Starting in 1943, when it was leased by the United States military for use as a firing range until the end of WWII, the 90-foot-long enclosed hallways provided the needed range. Upon its return to the city, a roof was added in the 1960s, discouraging algae growth that plagued many of the exhibits. By the late 1970s, the aquarium was showing signs of its age and was closed for several years to undergo restoration and expansion under the direction of two of Key West’s leading businessmen, Chris Belland and Ed Swift III. Interior exhibits for the animals were enhanced from the ground up, including new signage, furthering guests’ understanding of our local waters and the animals found in them. One of the newest additions, constructed at this time, was the Atlantic Shores exhibit. This 50,000-gallon exhibit provided space for large species of game fish, tropical fish, sharks, sea turtles and more, including a mangrove shoreline. Further expansion included a large pen to house even larger specimens in the basin on the west side of the building. The Key West Aquarium reopened in 1982, just as tourism was becoming the main economic engine for Key West and the Florida Keys.

aquarium since 1935 signage

Over the past decade, additional enhancements have taken place. One that is appreciated by all who work and visit the aquarium is air conditioning, though one that we present with great pride is the entryway façade, completed in 2023. Today, guests enter through glass doors adorned with an image taken in 1937 showing a couple entering the open-air aquarium with a ticket agent welcoming them. To further the visual and historic presentation, large wooden gates were built to replicate the original wooden gates at the entry, bi-fold windows were added to the arched windows just to the left and right of entry and lastly a fountain was added, furthering the visual experience.

Today, as in all the decades since its opening in 1935, the Key West Aquarium has provided visitors to Key West the unique opportunity to get up close and personal with many of the creatures that live and thrive in the waters surrounding Key West and the Florida Keys. The ability to view these creatures and to learn about their habitats, conservation initiatives and cultural significance are the most endearing impacts connecting the Key West Aquarium to the lifeblood of many generations of the families that call Key West home, including the generations of repeat visitors we see every day.



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