52. The Key West Aquarium

Historic Marker number 52 is located at 1 Whitehead Street on Mallory Square.

The Key West Aquarium was the first and largest of its kind in Florida. It was built between 1932 and 1934, when Key West was in the grips of the Great Depression and on the verge of bankruptcy. The City had turned its charter over to the federal government and President Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration (WPA) was charged with reviving Key West's faltering economy.

The Aquarium was the invention of Dr. Robert Van Deusen, the Director of the Fairmount Park Aquarium in Philadelphia, and a frequent visitor to the island. A WPA project, it was designed to be both the world's first open air aquarium and garden, as well as a research center and clearing house for subtropical aquatic animals and plants. It was thought that the Key West Aquarium would bring visitors to the island and thus strengthen the economy. The building of this first tourist attraction in Key West signaled the shift in our economy from the export of goods to the import of tourists.

The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 demolished both the Overseas Railroad that carried travelers to Key West, and the hope that the Aquarium could draw crowds of tourists to the island. From 1934 to 1947, the US government removed the various displays, filled in the holding tanks, and used the facility as a military gun range. At the end of World War II, the former Aquarium was returned to the city and rebuilt. By the 1960's lighting improvements had been made and a roof that reduced the growth of algae in the tank had been installed.

Seasonal storms are always a possibility in the Florida Keys. In October 2005, Hurricane Wilma struck Key West, causing extensive flooding and damage. The Aquarium fared well. However, raising waters breached and flooded the shark tanks that faced the Gulf of Mexico and their inhabitants escaped out to sea.

Today, the Key West Aquarium continues to be a wonderful place to experience the wide array of marine creatures that inhabit the unique waters of our tropical paradise.