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For 32 years, Luise Buettner marked the beginning of the tourist season with the arrival of the Joessmans, the Uoesers, Inga Koetz, and Karl Heinz. The Nuremberg-born motel owner catered to vacationers from her homeland. Herzlich Willkommen, read a sign in the office window of the Noble Motel Apartments, 3110 Auramar St., on Fort Lauderdale Beach: "From the heart, we welcome you."
German tourists found the 16-unit motel by word of mouth. And they came back year after year, forming a tight-knit community at the two-story, '60s-era motel with the tropical courtyard and the oval swimming pool at its center. In the evenings, everybody would cook a favorite dish, gather at poolside for dinner, sing the old songs, and dance the polka late into the night. "Oh, we had fun," Buettner beamed.
The Noble was a one-woman operation, and Buettner kept things just so for her guests. "There wasn't a leaf on the ground!" marveled Buettner's close friend Candy Fulves, who died June 22, a few weeks after she granted this interview. Indeed, when Fulves first met Buettner 32 years ago, she thought her diminutive German neighbor was the motel's maid.
Paul Joseph Edwards/Pavel Josef Placek
lawyer, Edwards's ex-wife
Heinrich's ex-girlfriend and mother of his three daughters
Buettner bought the Noble for $250,000 in 1970. In today's market, with its location a block from the ocean near Sunrise Boulevard, in a neighborhood of mom-and-pop motels coveted by developers who dream of condo canyons, Buettner thinks her 8744-square-foot motel on half a city block would fetch $2 million to $3 million. That is, if she could stand to part with it.
For the past few years, friends have urged her to do just that -- sell the place and retire to a waterfront home she owns in Pompano Beach. But Buettner won't hear of it. She likes her apartment at the motel and the commotion of visitors. If not sell, then perhaps hire a manager and take things easier? No. Even as diabetes has ravaged her eyesight, Buettner has stubbornly refused to give up control.
On a sunny afternoon in late May, the air is so humid that it leaves a film on the skin. Underneath the metal umbrella poolside at the Noble sit three scraggly, blond guys who look like they walked off a construction site. Today, they hoist beers and work cigarettes down to the nub. As a stranger pushes open the white, wrought-iron gate and walks inside, one of the men decides to play host. Beyond him, black scum circles the edge of the Noble pool. He addresses a New Times reporter with rushed, exaggerated urgency, "Can I help you? You looking for Luise? You want Luise? Go right around that way." He points to the jalousie door of Luise's apartment. "Right there. That's her door. Just knock."
A television blares inside. The air conditioner rumbles. A woman's voice layers through the racket. She is yelling something. A gentle knock on the door. Inside, Luise Buettner shouts, "Is someone there? Come in, come in! I can't come to the door! Come in. Come in!"
When you've been in a place before, you think you know how you'll find things. When the door opens, Buettner will be sitting on her day bed surrounded by a collection of dolls she has outfitted in crocheted dresses and bonnets. A forest of elves will be perched on a shelf that encircles the room above the window frames. She will smile.
Instead, she is down on the tile floor. Her walker, with its bright-green tennis balls on the tips, is smashed against a television tray. Bottles of pills are strewn on the floor around her. "I fell," she says sheepishly. Right outside the window, the blond dudes are still downing their beers. They couldn't hear her shouts. She looks dazed, embarrassed at her predicament. "You must be my angel," she says.
Alerted to her plight, the men hoist Buettner off the floor and back onto her day bed. Buettner thanks them, but when they leave, her tone changes. "Acchhh, none of them can pay," she says, disgusted. As word ricochets around the complex, people troop in the door to check on her: Jean, a 50-something woman with badly dyed blond hair, hollow cheeks, and stick legs. A 20-ish girl named Cheryl who is supposed to be entering a drug treatment program. Mark, who administers her daily insulin shot and admits, yes, he used crack cocaine at one time. When each leaves, Buettner spits out the same remark: "Can't pay. None of them can pay."
Now, she may have no choice but to sell. Small motels like the Noble, where the high season was crippled by 9/11, face a most gruesome summer. Many of Noble's German tourists canceled their reservations after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. And Buettner hasn't been able to run things on her own since she suffered two strokes in January 2001. After that setback, she turned to a stranger who ripped her off. Now her 41-year-old son, Heinrich, manages the place. Last week, Buettner had only $20 in her personal checking account, Heinrich says. The Noble Apartment account had a paltry $17.
Both Fulves and Buettner say the motel has "gone to hell" since Heinrich took it over about a year ago. Fulves says she's afraid to venture into the courtyard at night. There are too many beer-infused disputes. "This used to be the Garden of Eden," Fulves says. Buettner shakes her head in agreement. "Now it's the Garden of Doom!"