It’s right there in front of you every time you walk down Duval Street in the 500 block but if you’re like me you probably never knew what is was. There it is at 516 Duval, an imposing, beautiful historic building with a Spanish facade lovingly restored. It houses the San Carlos Institute, which is a Cuban cultural center that’s been at this location since 1890. José Martí spoke there. The organization itself began in the 1870s but later moved to Duval Street, where a collection of donors and government funding keep the old building in tip top shape.
The San Carlos Institute, according to its website, was an all encompassing center for Cuban expats in Key West. Initially formed by supporters of Cuba’s freedom from Spain, it quickly became a center for bilingual education…one of the first in the country, in fact. Integrated long before almost any other school in the United States, it wasn’t just for children of Cuban expats. Children of all races could attend the San Carlos Institute.
Money to keep the Institute and the school going came mainly from Cuba during the early days, but of course that changed with Fidel’s takeover in 1959. By 1973 they couldn’t keep things going and closed the school. It sat in disrepair for almost twenty years. In 1981 a chunk of the building fell on a tourist and people wanted to tear it down.
A Miami attorney named Rafael A. Peñalver, Jr. was pretty much solely responsible starting a movement to save the building (and the San Carlos Institute). He put in millions of dollars of his own and the building reopened in 1992. Now you can attend concerts, Songwriters’ Festival and other events in their 360-seat theater.