Raze the Roof

Greed, neglect, and the bulldozer's blade chew away at the work of Fort Lauderdale's master builder

The killing was carried out midday, in front of numerous witnesses. Yet to this day, the culprit´s identity remains in dispute. Thursday morning, August 1, 2002, a yellow bulldozer chugged up Rio Vista Boulevard on its way to demolish one of Fort Lauderdale´s grandest riverfront mansions. The 1926 structure was designed by Francis Abreu, the city´s most famous architect, the resident genius during its first building boom.

A crowd of neighbors collected in front of the palatial spread, unable to believe what they were seeing. ¨It was absolutely the most pathetic and sad thing you could ever imagine,¨ remembers Leslie Curley, born and raised in the Rio Vista neighborhood.

Mayor Jim Naugle lived just down the street from the condemned estate and was driving his daughter, Rachel, home from daycare that afternoon. He watched stone-faced as the home he´d known since childhood was laid to waste, sections of masonry walls crumbling and buckling. The enormity of what was taking place — on his watch, no less — overtook him.

For want of a laundry room: The Graves house before and (next image) during its demolition
Fort Lauderdale Historical Society
For want of a laundry room: The Graves house before and (next image) during its demolition
Fort Lauderdale Historical Society

¨Oh, Rachel,¨ he cried, ¨this was such a beautiful house! It´s such a shame that it´s being torn down. This is a terrible tragedy!¨

Even 4-year-old Rachel knew empty lots in Rio Vista didn´t stay that way for long. She looked at her father and touched his arm gently. ¨Don´t worry, Daddy,¨ she consoled him, ¨they´ll build a new one.¨

On the street in front of the house, bystanders wept as the equipment went to work. Among them was Kate Gaskill, who grew up in the house. Her well-known mother, an archaeologist and socialite, had lived there so long that it was named after her. ¨It´s a good thing she was out of town,¨ Gaskill remarks. ¨It would have been like watching your child die on the operating table.¨

Everyone in town called it the Gypsy Graves House.

Local attorney and developer Lawrence Levine unabashedly introduces himself as ¨the one that tore it down.¨

He blames the City of Fort Lauderdale for failing to guard its own treasures. The case, he argues, leaves little doubt over the cause of the home´s undoing. The real killer, he says, was his calculator.

¨It was an economic decision,¨ Levine explains curtly. ¨The house was not capable of being restored at a price you could then sell it for. The land was just too valuable.¨

The house at 1115 N. Rio Vista Blvd. was no ordinary dwelling. It was possibly Abreu´s finest design, packed with all the details and amenities that characterized his mid-1920s Mediterranean Revival projects. Its floors were constructed of interlocking slabs of rare, flat, hollow, barrel tiles from Cuba. It sported soaring archways, huge stained-glass windows, French doors that opened onto expansive courtyards, wrought-iron railings and lanterns, a dressing room, a butler´s pantry, a paneled study, old wood floors, massive fireplaces, balconies, and a swimming pool, plus a commanding, panoramic view of the New River.

It was, in short, an architectural jewel, presiding over tree-lined Rio Vista with a matronly grace, even though it was partially hidden from the road. The classic elements that could be seen and its imposing courtyard walls helped define the neighborhood´s upper-crust character. And the house was full of stories and secrets.

According to local legend, one of Al Capone´s henchmen, Jack ¨Machine-Gun¨ McGurn, had planned the St. Valentine´s Day Massacre at the dining-room table. There was even a hidden room under the stairs accessible only through a trick door in a powder room. There were rumors that McGurn had secreted a stash of Tommy guns in there, and Graves never denied it. She´d fallen in love with the home— just from looking at it from the street — and she moved in when her daughter was only a month old.

¨I lived there 37 years, and I loved the old place,¨ Graves says today. Back in the 1950s, she remembers, the mayor was a kid she called — still calls — Jimmy. She and his mother were bowling partners. ¨I regret it many a time,¨ she sighs, ¨but financially, I was in a bind. It shouldn´t have happened. They destroyed something more important than money could buy.¨

The home was so well-constructed, its supporters point out, that it took three days to tear it down. ¨It was an enchanted place to grow up,¨ Gaskill says. ¨On the river, with a beautiful pool and tropical plants as a backdrop.¨

Three months before the home´s demise, the Historic Preservation Board of Fort Lauderdale, realizing it lay in a developer´s sights, had voted unanimously to declare it a historic structure. But the board is an advisory committee lacking the power to make decisions without political interference, and during a City Commission meeting the following month, its recommendation was swept aside. The sole voice to save the landmark was Mayor Naugle´s.

¨If you look in a dictionary for a definition of a historic house, they would have Gypsy Graves´ house in there,¨ he says. The night of the vote troubled him even more than watching the bulldozers attack the house. That, he recalls, felt like signing a death warrant — which the city issued July 24 in the form of a demolition permit. ¨That was the worst,¨ he says.

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