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Hidden at the center of downtown Fort Lauderdale at 335 SE Sixth Ave. sits the Stranahan House, a green-and-white, two-story, wooden rectangle on the north shore of the New River with massive wrap-around porches ringing both floors. At 101 years old, the oldest residence in Broward County has survived hurricanes, nearby construction projects, and incarnations as a business and boarding house. Though large for its time, the home is far from ornate.
"Stranahan House is the perfect example of pioneer architecture in South Florida before it was developed, when it was still a true wilderness," points out Katherine Lee Von Dullen, an architect who worked on the home's restoration 21 years ago. "What makes it so important is not that it's a grand mansion but that it's a very simple rustic pioneer trading post. People don't understand that Fort Lauderdale's history is as important to South Florida as the Pilgrims' history is to Massachusetts."
Now a museum and historic resource of national significance, the Stranahan House has weathered the city's proliferation of office buildings and skyscrapers with dogged obstinacy, if not grace. But the historic home is threatened on nearly every side by encroaching development: Some 150 feet to the east, the Riverside Hotel is completing a 16-story addition and parking garage, literally throwing the little house in the shade for much of the morning. Beneath the house runs the Federal Highway tunnel under the New River. And just north and west of the historic home -- on the defunct Hyde Park Market site, its parking lot, and the land immediately to its east -- the prospect of an even-more inappropriate building looms in the form of a proposed $50 million, 312-unit residential high-rise whose bulk would wrap around the house and block out much of its sky for good.
Already, the structure is all but hidden from public view from every angle save the New River, which flows 20 feet from its porch steps. The average pedestrian or driver will never notice it; the condominium will further seal off that view, many contend. Part of the problem is that the building was not situated to have a public face to Las Olas Boulevard -- it was always oriented toward the river. "Unfortunately, we don't come by boat anymore," adds Von Dullen. "If they can develop the parcel so that it will leave it some visual access to Las Olas, that would be better for everyone."
At its closest point, the proposed tower would stand just 90 feet from the Stranahan House's northwest flank. But when developers unveiled plans for their gleaming 363-foot high-rise, they said it was done with the home's low profile in mind. More likely, the condo will enclose the Stranahan House in a box canyon of concrete and glass, with sunsets and sunrises becoming muted, rushed affairs.
"It's a travesty what's happening there," says Dr. Paul S. George, professor of history at Miami-Dade Community College, who also serves as historian to the Historical Association of Southern Florida. "The Stranahan House is one of the very few old buildings we have left, and it happens to be the most important of all of them. It's the home of the mom and dad of modern Fort Lauderdale."
The Stranahan House and its allies are using every resource at their disposal to stop this latest sky-scraping interloper. With the help of the City of Fort Lauderdale and private donors, the nonprofit that operates the house has raised slightly more than $18 million to buy the Hyde Park lot, which the city would then turn into a park. But the landowner and developer have pledged not to part with the parcel at any price -- certainly not for the measly sum of $18 million. Miami developer the Related Group expects the condo project to earn a profit of at least $38 million; when the city tries to take the land in an eminent-domain trial beginning February 18, the Related Group's attorneys will try to convince a jury that the land is worth that much. With the understanding that Fort Lauderdale is limited in the amount it can fork over to purchase the site for a park, the owner/developer hopes it can price the parcel out of the city's reach.
Even if the jury decides that $18 million is fair, that's still more than five times what the owner paid for the property in 1999. Some would find the developer's attempt to jack up the price to be shrewd business practice based on "situational value." Others have called it extortion. But the historic home isn't going to let itself be completely hemmed in without a fight.
Inside the trailer that serves as the office of the Stranahan House, executive director Barbara Keith is doing all she can not to complain about the noise, dust, and inconvenience from the Riverside Hotel's expansion. "It has been so difficult," she says with eyes rolling toward her matronly mass of ivory curls. "Maybe we should have fought that too. But all of a sudden, we were surrounded on all sides." On this weekday in early December, chainlink fences surround the Riverside construction site, and the small parking lot next to the house is white with drywall dust that is blowing onto its grounds. The shrill beep of a tractor backing up fills the courtyard around the home, and a worker yells as a load of lumber and debris is dropped from a high floor to the ground with a ragged boom.