A meticulously restored houseboat-turned-lodgings anchors Bungalows Beach Estate in the Florida Keys.  

Photographs by Bungalows Beach Estate

In September 1960, Hurricane Donna, a fierce storm that wreaked considerable havoc from the
Lesser Antilles to New England, ravaged the Florida Keys. With winds gusting up to 150 mph, Donna demolished hundreds of homes and severely damaged or destroyed countless boats and docks. 

One “survivor” was the Bay Bourne houseboat, which came loose from its moorings, washed up in the middle of U.S. Route 1, and was then rolled on telephone poles back to the very spot where it sits today. Short of actually being in the water, a more perfect setting for the houseboat—with 300 feet of private untouched beachfront steps from the Atlantic Ocean—is hard to imagine. 

The 1950s Bay Bourne houseboat was restored by developer Jerry Johnston. 

A 60-foot Chris Craft custom-built in the early 1950s for legendary hotelier Conrad Hilton, the Bay Bourne fittingly belongs today to Jerry Johnson, a hotel owner and developer. The boat, completely refurbished as luxury living quarters and permanently anchored on land, is the centerpiece of Johnson’s private Bungalows Beach Estate, a lavish family vacation residence spread over five acres on Islamorada in the Florida Keys.

The interiors have a low key south Florida vibe. 

“I always admired the location and history of the property,” says Johnson, who purchased the boat in 2017. In his heyday, Hilton entertained dignitaries onboard, including President Harry S. Truman, President George H.W. Bush, and legendary news anchor, Edward R. Murrow. Says Johnson: “It was important to restore the main boathouse to preserve the history.”

The ground-up restoration of the 1948 boat was painstaking and included a slowdown brought on by the pandemic. “It is in amazing condition with a solid steel structure,” says Johnson. “We have just added the modern touches of home.” With two verandas, a kitchen, a living space, one bedroom and two bathrooms, it is a far cry from when it served, post-Hilton and pre-hurricane, as a rental unit for Clara May Downey’s Olney Inn. And the property surrounding it is equally resplendent.

In all, the Bungalows Beach Estate is composed of eight bedrooms and 10 bathrooms in seven bungalows, each of which boasts its own private veranda and oversized alfresco soaking tub. Additionally, there is a main living room for family and guests to gather, a tiki bar, an infinity pool, and more, all interconnected by open-air walkways amid lush vegetation. 

“Hundreds of palm trees line the property on all sides to create an individual-island feeling,” notes Johnson, explaining that it’s similar to the ambiance at the Bungalows Key Largo Resort, which he owns. Particularly relevant during the pandemic, the thoughtful placement of outdoor areas and vegetation promotes airflow and easy circulation from the separate rooms to the common areas. 

“When I originally started to design the property, it was with attention to the great views of the ocean and the privacy surrounding the estate,” shares Johnson. Islamorada, located directly between Miami and Key West, is a village made up of five islands, including Upper Matecumbe Key, where Bungalows Beach Estate sits. Depending on the time of year, the waters teem with sailfish, marlin, kingfish, wahoo, mahi-mahi, and tuna. Tarpon and bonefish live in the area year round. 

Tropical nuances outside, such as the bungalows’ thatched roofs, carry over to the interiors, which resonate with a South Florida vibe that is equal parts laidback and luxurious. The clean, neutral palette is a complementary backdrop for pops of color like teal, and nods to nautical architecture foster simple lines and minimal decoration. Driftwood-hued floors, natural fiber headboards, and durable white canvas upholstery, are mixed and matched in a way that invites casual indoor-outdoor living. Johnson, who oversaw the estate’s design details, describes the ambiance as “a perfect marriage of marine and island aesthetics with influences from my trips to Greece and Mexico, and even odes to the history of Key West.”

Johnson emulated the ambiance at the Bungalows Key Largo Resort, which he owns. 

If ever there were a place that clears your mind and boosts your spirits as if you were out on the open seas, this would be it. The labor of love involved to bring the Bay Bourne houseboat back to its former glory was well worth it, says Johnson, whose reward is Bungalows Beach Estate and its “lush, tropical feeling that transports my family and me to our own private oasis.” 

For information on Jerry Johnson’s resort, Visit bungalowskeylargo.com