The Bay Bourne Houseboat

Gets New Life in the Florida Keys

Text Jane Healy

Built by Chris Craft in 1948 as a custom-designed houseboat for hotel magnate Baron Conrad Hilton, The Bay Bourne has nothing if not a history. While no one knows for sure why Hilton gave up the 60-foot boat, at some point in the 1950s it was towed from its mooring in Miami to Clara May Downey’s Olney Inn (now the Cheeca Lodge in Islamorada.) Downey, no smalltime entrepreneur, owned and operated the Olney Inn in Miami Beach just off the Venetian Causeway, ran a popular Manhattan outpost at 12 E. 49th Street, and maintained the original just outside of Washington, D.C. It was her intention to use Hilton’s cast off houseboat as a novel guest suite in Islamorada, and she did just that for several years.  But… that was before Donna arrived with different intentions.

Hurricane Donna was a powerful category four storm that ripped through the Keys at 2 a.m. on September 10, 1960, leaving total destruction in its wake. The Bay Bourne, which had been moored next to the Inn, washed far ashore and eventually had to be rolled on telephone poles back to where it sits today on a foundation meant to keep it from wandering. With the headaches left after Donna’s departure, Downey had had enough, and sold the Olney Inn. The shoreline acreage on which the houseboat sat –– as well as the beached craft itself ––  sold and stayed in one family until recently, when hotelier Jerry Johnson purchased this bit of history and the five acres of waterfront land on which it sits, determined to renovate and repair the 70+ year old houseboat. 

Following through on his promise, Johnson oversaw a crew who repaired every inch of the 1-bedroom craft, which features 2 verandas, full kitchen, living spaces and two full baths. Teal green Adirondack chairs soak up the morning sun downstairs while on the deck just above, sun-washed, upholstered sofas with substantial metal frames caress a pair of classic Parsons tables. Johnson wanted this parcel to become a private, family getaway with no less than seven bungalows and adjacent main building with living room, tiki bar and infinity-edge pool. The design and the interiors of these new bungalows pay respect to the renovated houseboat and are finished in a streamlined style that is unapologetically modern yet relaxed in every detail.  

Now on a permanent foundation, the renovated 70+ year-old houseboat has taken on new life, this time fortified with hurricane-impact windows and strengthened fittings.

Johnson was obviously thinking about permanence with this renovation, replacing openings with impact glass windows, right down to the houseboat’s round, porthole windows. Upstairs, in order to take maximum advantage of the incredible view and balmy breezes, Johnson opted for concertina-style doors. Contemporary furnishings here, as well as in the new construction bungalows, are kept warm, with the occasional vintage piece in aqua or teal making an appearance. Johnson says, upon completion of the renovation, new construction and interior design, the entire compound reflects the perfect marriage of marine and island design. 

From top to bottom: New, 2nd level deck overlooks the beach. New kitchen with work island. New, interior bedroom suite. Upstairs living area with concertina-style doors.

The Bay Bourne Houseboat now rests in polished splendor at the center of its family compound like a gleaming jewel, surrounded by a thoughtfully designed little village filled with family and friends. All of this was accomplished by Johnson without losing any of the “castaway” feel the original engenders. Thurston Howell, III and his wife Lovey would feel right at home.