Construction & Design
Soon after laying the Custom House’s foundation, a drunken arrangement nearly derailed the building’s construction. During one alcohol-fueled evening on the island, John McDermott, a partner in the project, promised George Martin, a seedy local bar and dance hall owner, a significant portion of the contract. Upon hearing the news, Lawrence Higgs, McDermott’s partner, contacted officials in Washington, D.C. claiming that any addenda to the original contract were void due to how intoxicated McDermott and Martin were during their night out together.
Higgs believed that he could complete the construction on his own; however, officials in Washington, D.C. opted to replace McDermott & Higgs as the Custom House contractors with a local cigar manufacturer, Augustine del Pino. S.S. Harvey, the local government supervisor, immediately pointed out that del Pino possessed little knowledge of construction techniques and was even more appalled by his appointment of George Martin as his construction foreman. Despite the disapproval, construction continued.
As construction moved forward so did the problems. Key West’s chief U.S. District Judge James W. Locke questioned some of the unnecessary building features such as the abundance of fireplaces. Various government supervisors noted that many of the 917,000 bricks shipped from New York were spalled and discolored and that a number of window sills had been damaged in transit. A noticeable flaw in the design was the lack of toilets inside the building, which posed a serious problem for the jurors of district court cases who had to be escorted down three flights of stairs and outside the building to use latrines. Fortunately, the building was eventually equipped with the necessary amenities.