The Garden Club was created in 1934 as a part of a WPA project to convert Key West into a tourist town.
In 1935, the first flower show, led by Jessie Porter Newton, occurred during the “Week of Joy” and was held at the Elk’s Club, now the Hard Rock Cafe. According to a newspaper report, the show was judged by Hemingway and Dos Passos (although they were both out of town at the time) and guests were served “Southern swill punch heavily laced with rum.” Flower shows continued to be held on a regular basis until the Club temporarily shut down during World War II.
In the early 1950s, Rep. Joe Allen saw city workers tearing down West Martello. It was considered an eyesore on the beach. Allen rescued it, saying it was a historical site and should be preserved. He suggested that it be leased by Monroe County to the Historical Society and then to the Key West Garden Club.
A flower show held in 1952 attracted the attention of National Geographic Magazine which printed lavish pictures of Key West’s tropical splendor, including many local beauties. In 1958, Gene Otto (of Robert the Doll fame) used Dade County Pine timbers from the fire-damaged Hotel Jefferson to construct the Pavilion and the Birdcage rooms.
The Garden Club voted to take possession on May 7th, 1953. Allen helped with putting in 18 inches of mineral-rich seaweed followed by street sweepings to create dirt. Members donated plants from their gardens. They established a tradition of responsibility for sections of the garden.
In 1960, Life Magazine took note of the Club’s flower show and published multiple pictures.
In 1962 missiles sprouted from Smathers Beach because of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Searchlights and communication equipment blossomed but did not affect the Martello.
In 1984, the name was changed to the Joe Allen Garden Center to honor Joe Allen.
In 2001 an orchid arbor was established in the old citadel, utilizing antique Cuban tiles. Restroom facilities were added. The Garden Club adopted the Berg and Kitso Nature Preserve. Hurricanes Georges (1998) and Wilma (2005) heavily damaged the fort and plants. The Garden lost seventy percent of its plantings and was redesigned and replanted. Also after Wilma, restoration work included tuck-pointing the bricks, re-roofing and adding wrought iron fences.
A weekly botanical column in the Key West Citizen began in 2008.
The Club received a grant in 2011-2012 from the Florida Department of Forestry to promote native trees. As a companion to Plants of Paradise, a four-color book was produced: Roots, Rocks and Rain: Native Trees of the Florida Keys, which won a Florida Federation of Garden Club’s National Publishing Award.
A native tree garden was planted by the back gate to improve “curb appeal.” Many native trees were planted inside the garden, as well as in the community. The Nursery benefited with improved plant benches and propagation tools.
The Garden Club became a Certified Wildlife Habitat in 2012.
In 2015, the educational Pavilion Room was completely renovated, with upgrades to the electrical system, air conditioning and decor. Magnetic painted walls are used to display photographs pertinent to current lectures.
The Propagation Committee produced another book, Seasons Project, which describes the biologic progression of a series of plants throughout the year.
“Pat’s Garden,” featuring native plants, was established in 2015 outside of West Martello on Atlantic Boulevard in honor of the late horticulturalist, Garden Club member and a former Garden Club President, Pat Rogers.
In early 2017, all of the existing wrought iron gates throughout the Fort were refurbished, and new gates made to the same design were manufactured and installed within the Fort itself.
In September 2017, Key West was hit by IRMA, a Category 4 hurricane, devastating parts of the gardens. The giant, iconic strangler fig fell over, tearing up the little brick tunnel and brick walls on either side, plus some bricks in the courtyard. Many other trees fell, eliminating much of the tropical tree canopy, but which provided a beautiful sunny view of the Fort ruins. Much of the garden was consequently redesigned as a sunny flowering garden.
A white perfume garden was created in the Inner Courtyard, and a large fountain and pool were installed opposite the double iron gate, bracketed by two stands of giant black bamboo and brilliant red-trunked lipstick palms. Opposite the green gazebo a “Dinosaur Garden” was created, planted with plants which were around in pre-historic times: Cycads, Dioons and Zamias. Replacing the fallen giant Pandanus and opposite the white gazebo on the side of the hill, is now a collection of rare Cuban palms.
The last post-Irma project was to rebuild the damaged orchid arbor with marine-quality wood and to expand our orchid collection throughout the gardens.
A major project restoring and repointing the crumbling bricks throughout the Fort began in the Fall of 2019, funded by the Tourist Development Council and County, and was completed in the Spring of 2020.
From March through June 2020 the Gardens at West Martello were totally closed to visitors due to the COVID-19 pandemic; a small group of volunteers still came in weekly to maintain the gardens. In June it was decided to reopen the gardens part time and to allow small weddings and events to take place in the gardens. In December the gardens opened again with regular hours, but Club meetings were still being held virtually on Zoom.
During the summer “downtime” a permanent Labyrinth was created on top of the hill in the Peace Park, edged with Native dwarf firebushes.
The Garden Club was gifted six beautiful African statues to be placed throughout the gardens in November 2020; an exhibition and explanatory display is planned for 2021 in the newly restored Powder Room of the old fort.