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A 'happy family' sculpture has greeted millions arriving at Key West's airport. So where did it go?

Happy Family (2).jpg
Key West International Airport
The sculptor Seward Johnson gifted Key West with this piece, "New Friends," more than 15 years ago. Until recently, it had rested above the arrival gate at Key West International Airport. But this week, the statues left the island.

For more than a dozen years, travelers arriving at the Key West International Airport were greeted by seven bronze statues perched atop the gate beneath lettering that reads, "Welcome to the Conch Republic."

But, suddenly and without warning, the sculpture, New Friends, disappeared this week without warning to the public.

And so did the replica of Key West's world famous Southernmost Point buoy.

No cause for alarm. The replica buoy and sculptures — crafted specifically for the city of Key West by the artist J. Seward Johnson about 20 years ago — are being restored and will be returned to the airport in early 2025, according to airport officials.

“They are going to be redone by Seward Johnson's estate and will be handled with care and taken care of properly before their return,” said Keys artist Susann D’Antonio, a member of the Monroe County Art in Public Places Board.

All seven statues of seemingly happy people, along with the replica, were packed onto a truck's flatbed and shipped north to the Johnson estate in New York for refurbishing.

“This is a complete renovation/conservation project for the 'Happy Family,'" D'Antonio told WLRN. "They will be returning all spruced up and conserved, in much better shape than they are now after years of our climate.”

That replica Southernmost Point buoy — an icon synonymous with the Southernmost City — turned heads in traffic, though.

Jade Jarvis, a reporter at WPBF 25 News in West Palm Beach, tweeted a photo of the sculpture — which focused on the replica Southernmost Point buoy — headed north on a Florida interstate on Monday.

"SPOTTED: The southernmost point… heading north on I-95," Jarvis tweeted.

The sighting created a bit of confusion on both Twitter and on I-95. Some thought they were watching the city of Key West's actual Southernmost Point buoy marker, which weighs about 20 tons, being hauled out of Florida.

Key West's original Southernmost Point buoy, though, is safe and sound at South and Whitehead streets, where tourists stand in line to take photos at the edge of the sea.

A closer look of the flatbed's uncovered contents shows two of Johnson's Key West airport greeters standing in front of the buoy.

Key West International Airport
Passengers at Key West International Airport walk the tarmac to and from flights in this 2022 photo.

No more little airport

Johnson's sculpture had to go away for another reason: the airport just started a $114 million construction project expected to last 2.5 years.

Monroe County will renovate the airport and add a 48,000-square-foot second level concourse — dubbed Concourse A.

The construction, estimated for completion by summer 2025, will add seven jet bridges for passengers to board flights, more baggage area space and a security checkpoint big enough to have four lanes.

Key West's tourism market has overwhelmed this small island airport — the only one in the 120-mile island chain available to public commercial flights.

In 2021, the Key West airport had its best year ever, with nearly 1.5 million passengers. Last year, the airport got nearly the same number of travelers.

The prior record was in 2019, with about 969,000 people using the airport.

Earlier this year, the airport put together a makeshift tunnel, made of shipping containers, for passengers to walk through on the tarmac. It's got lighting and air conditioning.

Buoy backstory

J. Seward Johnson, the acclaimed sculptor whose works belong to collectors and museums across the world, kept a home in Key West.

In the late 2000s, Johnson invested several years working with Key West's Art in Public Places board to deliver New Friends, originally valued at $750,000, to the island, the Miami Herald reported in 2007.

New Friends, which Monroe County Commissioner Michelle Lincoln has always affectionately called Happy Family, was designed specifically to stand at the large Southernmost Point buoy that marks 90 miles to Cuba on Whitehead and South streets.

But the Key West City Commission derailed those plans, voting to remove it, saying it would crowd the site that draws crowds eager for selfies and group photos.

Provided by Sue Fowler
In this 2007 photo, Debbie Crandall, who was visiting Key West from Westborough, Massachusetts, poses with J. Seward Johnson's bronze statues, part of his "New Friends" sculpture he designed specifically for Key West, at the Southernmost Point buoy in Key West. The sculpture was later moved to the Key West International Airport.

Johnson, who died in 2020 at his Key West home at 89 years of age, became famous for his larger-than-life realism sculptures of people.

Then-City Commissioner Mark Rossi told the Miami Herald, "I don't believe people want their pictures taken with those statues," before voting against the sculpture's original location.

Some locals still link the happy figures to the Southernmost Point rather than the airport.

Johnson's bronze people ended up at the airport, viewed by more than 1 million people each year. Johnson reportedly added the replica Southernmost Point buoy to complete his vision.

The internationally renowned Johnson, who was heir to the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical fortune, was angry over the commission's rejection, the Herald reported. He considered Key West his part-time hometown.

"All of a sudden, to come out against it, was dysfunctional," Johnson told the Herald.

But he added, "part of the reason I came to Key West is I love the dysfunctionality."

Gwen Filosa covers the Florida Keys for WLRN. She has been reporting from the island chain for over a decade, from Cuban landings and the workforce housing crisis, to the oddities and charms of the Keys.