Raze the Roof

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

¨I don´t think Father would have been a happy camper,¨ Peter Abreu says today. He admits that the Graves House needed expansion and upgrades but adds: ¨With some intelligence and a good architect, all of that can be worked around.¨

The Historical Society of Fort Lauderdale has officially documented 45 Abreu projects in the area. Of those, four have been demolished, one is classified ¨unrecognizable,¨ several are ¨altered¨ and a few, including the historic Dania Beach Hotel, are listed as ¨threatened.¨

Ironically, the grandest home he ever constructed was the first to go. Casa Sonriendo was a magnificent estate featuring marble staircases, serpentine tiles, truncated arches, Ionic columns, a baronial main dining hall with two-story ceilings, and a cloister-like gallery. Built in 1925, Casa Sonriendo boasted 600 feet on the New River. It survived the 1926 storm without a scratch but was sold to an Ohioan in 1963 who leveled it for a church parking lot.

Gypsy Graves and daughter Kate Gaskill
Gypsy Graves and daughter Kate Gaskill

By then, Abreu´s pioneering architecture had fallen from favor. The Fort Lauderdale Golf and Country Club, built in the mid-1920s amid a virtual jungle where Plantation is today, was torn down in the 1970s.

Idlewyld, an upscale neighborhood off Las Olas Boulevard, a half-mile from the beach, once held the densest concentration of Abreu properties in the city; a single block was studded with ten of his creations. But Idlewyld is now full of vacant lots where transitions from old and small to new and huge take place every month. The neighborhood has no historical protection, and none of the Abreu homes have any designation.

Some prominent buildings that Abreu designed remain, notably St. Anthony´s School in Victoria Park, the Shepherd Estate on East Las Olas Boulevard, the old firehouse in Sailboat Bend, and the original portion of the Riverside Hotel.

But the demolition of the Gypsy Graves House still aches like a fresh bruise.

Levine remains adamant that ¨no one could make a supporting argument that the house could have been restored. And even in its restored condition, it would have been of limited value in today´s economy.¨

In 1999, the Fort Lauderdale Junior League, under Barbara VanVoast, an interior designer who redecorated the Graves house, polishing and restoring the wood floors, and held a gala fundraiser there. Gaskill says that when the house was sold a few months later, the kitchen had just been remodeled, with glass cabinets, state-of-the-art appliances, and granite countertops.

But there was nothing special about the Graves house, Levine insists. ¨It was just a structure! It didn´t look like anything from the back, anything from the front. It was just a private residence that by coincidence had a connection to Francis Abreu, a classic architect.¨

The handwringing when the house was torn down, he says, rang false in his ears. ¨There was a lot of hysteria,¨ Levine remembers. ¨Gypsy Graves´ daughter was there crying when the bulldozer showed up. She was the one getting all the play in the media. But the Graveses were not exactly crying when we handed over that check for a million-four.¨

Preservation-minded citizens aren´t assuaged. VanVoast recalls the demolition actually turning her stomach: ¨It was sickening. It was just like watching a murder.¨ She believes there´s a special circle in hell for people who demolish relics such as the Graves home.

¨There´s a curse on somebody who destroys a house like that,¨ she alleges. ¨Whoever did it is cursed. It´s very bad luck.¨

Charles Jordan puts his white Ford F-150 in park along the south bank of the Himmarshee Canal in the Beverly Heights neighborhood and glances up at the three-story Towers Apartments. He and a team of investors are working out a $5 million-plus deal to buy the 1925 building — among Abreu´s largest projects — and restore it to its original condition.

¨You´ve got to want to do this kind of thing,¨ and it´s far from easy, he says. Too many unforeseen problems and ¨the numbers start to not work.¨ And the city doesn´t make it easy either. ¨The zoning department decided to run us through the mill,¨ he says, scratching his neatly trimmed, graying beard. ¨There are very few people who even know enough to battle the city on the level I did.

¨I wouldn´t even consider tearing this building down,¨ he continues, pointing out the red Cuban tiles capping small bell-towers with tiny, wood-framed windows. ¨It would be a sin. But even someone well-intentioned could have lost this battle and this building.¨

Jordan owns New World Builders, a construction firm he says is dedicated to ¨sensitive¨ development. He led the city´s Historic Preservation Board for two years and was the president of the Broward Trust for Historic Preservation until this year, when he resigned to run for a seat against District 4 City Commissioner Cindi Hutchinson. In fact, preservationists in the city uniformly point to Hutchinson as one commissioner who can be counted on to side with developers — and overturn the Historical Preservation Board´s recommendation when it´s time to vote.

Hutchinson, who points out that she is ¨only one vote,¨ understands the outcry. ¨I know,¨ she sighs. ¨Somebody has to pay for this.¨

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