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San Carlos Institute

CIRCA 1871

Historic Marker number 63 is located at 516 Duval Street next to Historic Marker number 28.The San Carlos Institute is a Cuban heritage center founded in 1871 by Cuban exiles who came to Key West to plan the campaign for Cuba's independence from Spain. José Dolores Poyo and Juan María Reyes, two distinguished leaders of Key West's Cuban community, proposed the establishment of an organization dedicated to promoting Cuban cultural values and patriotic ideals. The San Carlos was principally supported by the contributions of the Cuban tobacco workers of Key West who donated a substantial portion of their modest wages to the Institute. The San Carlos Institute was inaugurated on November 11, 1871 in a small wooden building located on Anne Street. It was named after Cuba's Seminario San Carlos, a place of higher learning renowned for its academic excellence.Education and preservation of cultural values were the Institute's primary missions. Classes were taught in English and Spanish to children of all races. The San Carlos thus became one of the nation's first bilingual and integrated schools. The San Carlos moved to larger quarters on Fleming Street in 1884. Two years later, the building burned to the ground in the fire of 1886 that destroyed much of Key West. Civic leader Martin Herrera led the effort that rebuilt the San Carlos on a spacious lot, at its present location, fronting Duval Street in the heart of Key West's historic district in 1890. Many legendary figures of Cuba's independence movement addressed the exile community at the San Carlos Institute. First among them was José Martí, Cuba's legendary patriot and poet, who so loved the San Carlos that he called it "La Casa Cuba."When Martí first arrived in Key West, his first mission was to try to unite the various factions of the exile community. He met with each leader individually and on January 3, 1892 he addressed a massive gathering at the San Carlos and announced that a united front would be established to lead the effort for Cuba's independence. This lead to the establishment of the Partido Revolucionario Cubano that encompassed the ideals and aspirations of a united exile community. They planned and organized the War of Independence that eventually succeeded in ridding Cuba of Spanish colonial rule.Jubilant exiles gathered at the San Carlos on May 20, 1902 to celebrate Cuba's independence. The Cuban people held the San Carlos as a treasured relic. They were heartbroken when the San Carlos was damaged beyond repair by a hurricane that devastated Key West in 1919. Efforts immediately began to rebuild the San Carlos. San Carlos president José Renedo led a delegation to Havana that secured $80,000 from the Republic of Cuba for the reconstruction of the San Carlos. Francisco Centurión, one of Cuba's most prominent architects, designed the present two-story building that incorporates many elements of Cuba's architecture: spacious rooms, high ceilings, graceful curves and arches, marble stairways, louvered windows, hand-crafted mosaics and floors of checkered Cuban tile. The building opened on October 10, 1924. It was a magnificent edifice and referred to by many as "The jewel of Key West."The San Carlos thrived during subsequent years. Its school continued the tradition of academic excellence under the direction of Mrs. Benildes Sánchez, who served as the San Carlos principal for 25 years. The Cuban government paid the salary of a Spanish-speaking teacher while the State of Florida paid the salary of an English-speaking teacher. Everything changed when a communist dictatorship seized power in Cuba in 1959. The financial assistance provided by the Cuban government ceased, and despite valiant efforts by some civic leaders in Key West, the local community alone was not able to sustain the aging building. Threatened with structural and financial collapse, the school closed its doors in 1973 after the building was condemned for structural deficiencies. The building remained closed for almost two decades. During this period, many of the San Carlos' books and records were lost to the elements or to vagrants who sought shelter in the vacant building.When a portion of the San Carlos' facade collapsed in 1981 injuring a passing tourist, some called for the building's demolition. Other sought to restore the building as a commercial theater. Some Cuban residents of Key West and Miami sought to stop the plans for commercial development of the property, but the courts ruled against them. In 1985, in a last-ditch effort to save the San Carlos as a Cuban historical landmark, the Cuban residents of Key West and Miami appealed to Florida's Hispanic Commission for relief. They put up a valiant effort to save the building from the forces of commercial development and eventually were able to solidify the historic importance of the building and raise the funds for the structures complete renovation. Community leaders, architects, builders, and artisans donated their skills to the restoration pro bono.A beautifully restored San Carlos Institute opened on January 4, 1992, exactly one hundred years from the day when José Martí delivered his first address at the Institute. Today, the San Carlos Institute serves as a historical archive, classroom, display gallery, community gathering place, and public theater.