Raze the Roof

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

Beset by financial woes, including the imminent collapse of her Dania Beach archaeological museum, Graves could no longer maintain the house on her own by the late 1990s. The taxes alone were more than $18,000 annually. In the summer of 2000, she sold the property to a Dallas real-estate developer who promised Graves she would renovate the 5,150-square-foot home. Gaskill and Graves both now believe that the Texan had no intention of restoring the legendary house.

The buyer, Cheree Roberts, was part of a limited-liability partnership with Lawrence Levine and his son, Howard. The Levines had already approached Graves and offered to buy the house as a teardown, but she refused, Graves says. ¨Then someone came in who we didn´t know and put on a dog-and-pony show about kids and family and dreams,¨ Gaskill adds.

In February 2002, the house changed hands again. Sitting vacant for two years, the estate was now owned by a corporation headed by Levine called 1115 N. Rio Vista Blvd. Land Trust. The company secured a construction loan for another $2.5 million.

When the city began discussing designating the property as ¨historic¨ (putting a halt to demolition plans) without the owner´s cooperation, Levine played hardball. He showed the city photographs of the remaining Abreu riverfront estates, arguing that the empty Graves house was the smallest of the four, was in the worst condition, and was burdened with the highest tax assessment.

¨We would have suffered an extreme hardship,¨ he says. ¨I made them aware that our house was being singled out. We had a legitimate argument, and fortunately the City Commission recognized the correctness of our position.¨

Despite the home´s attributes and history, Levine contends, he simply couldn´t see past the numbers. From the start, saving the Gypsy Graves House was never a consideration, he admits. Fort Lauderdale´s real-estate boom of the past decade had made Rio Vista´s the most desirable streets in town. Attracting primarily doctors and lawyers, large modern mansions with dockage regularly fetched $3 million to $4 million each.

¨It was functionally obsolete,¨ he continues. ¨The closets in the house were no more than two by two feet. There was no laundry room. You couldn´t buy that thing and the dirt for a million-four, put in a couple of hundred thousand to fix it up, and then expect to sell it at a profit. Economically, we would have been destroyed. People expect luxurious bathrooms — not something that looks like it´s in a rental property.¨

Naugle — a real-estate agent for 31 years — is unconvinced. ¨With a house like that,¨ he claims, ¨there´s a buyer who´ll pay the same price as someone will for the lot. But you have to go to a little extra trouble to find that person. And people don´t want to do the work.¨ The easy way out is: ¨Find a developer to knock it down and build a new one.¨

John O´Connor, an ardent preservationist who publishes Home Fort Lauderdalemagazine, is sick of that trend. ¨Every other major city in the country gets this,¨ he exclaims. ¨Chicago would never tear down a Frank Lloyd Wright house. If you´re in Beacon Hill, you can´t tear down the townhouse you live in. You can´t even change the color of the door! It´s only here. The greed factor is too huge. And it´s far too easy for people to get a demolition permit.¨

Indeed, Broward County is one of the few places in the nation that routinely cannibalizes its past to make room for large, lot-busting new construction. Demolishing the contributions Richard Neutra made to L.A. or the Greenes in Pasadena or Wright´s works is unthinkable, but Broward continues leveling its legacy, tearing down what remains of its most prominent architects´ work with developer-backed zeal.

The prevailing mindset seems to view Mr. Bulldozer as the solution to anything old and in the way.

Francis Louis Abreu was Fort Lauderdale´s original master builder, a man whose vision gave the city its lush sense of place.

The son of wealthy Havana plantation owners, he was busy building during the 1920s boom. Fort Lauderdale´s second registered architect was a World War I vet and Cornell graduate with typical Ivy League flair. A tall, handsome man with a wiry tennis player´s build, Abreu was notoriously camera-shy but, as a young bachelor, successful in attracting women. Thanks to connections from his cosmopolitan, globetrotting family, his clients in South Florida tended to be wealthy, socially prominent individuals.

Peter Abreu, son of the architect and his second wife, lives in Roswell, Georgia. ¨Father was quite a fella,¨ he chuckles in a soft Southern accent. ¨He could walk into a room, not knowing anybody, and he´d leave, still not knowing anybody. But everybody knew him!¨

He wanted his Mediterranean Revival homes to anchor Fort Lauderdale´s grand old neighborhoods in the manner of Coral Gables or Palm Beach. He designed the house on Rio Vista Boulevard for real-estate mogul Andrew Weiss in 1926. But that September, a hurricane destroyed Fort Lauderdale´s downtown core, killing the boom overnight. Abreu moved to Georgia, where his career flourished. The Graves House, then known as Rio Riente, went on to enliven local legend.

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