Raze the Roof

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

¨Those who thought she was at least fair-minded have lost confidence in her,¨ laments Diane Smart, who replaced Jordan on the Broward Trust.

¨She´s the reason things are in the state they´re in,¨ adds Jordan. ¨Her votes and her lack of leadership have been devastating.¨

Hutchinson acknowledges that ¨some of the votes I´ve had to make are quite hard on historic preservation. With the Gypsy Graves House, I don´t know if I did the right thing. If I had it to do over, my vote might well have been different. But it´s too late. That vote in particular has bothered me — because maybe I didn´t do the right thing.¨

Out: The old post office on Himmarshee (2nd) Street.
Out: The old post office on Himmarshee (2nd) Street.
Safe: A restored Abreu on South Andrews Ave.
Safe: A restored Abreu on South Andrews Ave.

¨We need a city preservationist who has no bureaucratic obstacles,¨ Jordan contends. ¨We need an in-your-face preservation group. I can´t live in this town and just watch this keep happening.¨

The Gypsy Graves House was ¨the poster child for everything that´s wrong with historical preservation in this town,¨ Jordan says. ¨I would have made as much — or more — money from restoring it.¨

Current Historical Preservation Board President Art Bengochea, himself an architect/builder, says he personally tried to save the place, preparing sketches showing how he could modernize the house without sacrificing its rich detail. ¨I looked at extending the dining room and adding bathrooms and closets commensurate with a multimillion-dollar house,¨ Bengochea says. But none of his high-end clients bit. ¨By the time I looked at it, there was a lot to be done to bring it up to current standards for a large, luxury home.¨

Could he have still realized a substantial profit? ¨Absolutely,¨ he says.

There are profits to be made in historic houses, Bengochea says, citing a project he´s engaged in now. Faced with the same choice Levine had — to raze or not to raze — Bengochea shows the kinder, gentler method.

It´s one of Abreu´s most extravagant palaces on the New River, the Reed Bryan House, at 403 Tarpon Terrace. Bengochea is painstakingly restoring all the original distinctive details of the 1925 home. The black-and-white marble floors have been replaced, the wrought ironwork sandblasted and polished, new wood-frame windows inserted. The square footage has been bumped from 6,600 feet up to ¨about 10,000,¨ he says, fitting surroundings for Michael Egan, the former Alamo Rent-a-Car and AutoNation executive once listed in Forbes as one of America´s richest individuals.

The house was originally built for $50,000 and resold for $100,000 in 1980. According to Broward County Property Appraiser data, the Egans paid $3.05 million for the house last November. Bengochea acknowledges he´s custom-building the additions for the Egans but declines to name his fee.

Jordan pulls into the dust- and gravel-filled yard of the Bryan Home, marveling at the expanded dimensions. ¨With the money he has, Michael Egan has taken a position that´s more preservationist than anyone in the city.

¨Art is a very sensitive architect,¨ Jordan says carefully. ¨Put this job in the wrong hands and it would have been a terrible mess, but this is in keeping with the original design. If it´s a choice between tearing it down and building a McMansion, I guess I´d choose this.¨

Another Rio Vista resident and Abreu fan, Jay Adams, has renovated two of the architect´s homes on South Andrews Avenue and is now at work on the Progresso Plaza on North Andrews, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places — one of only three commercial buildings in the city to attain such an honor.

¨These projects are very difficult to make financial sense out of,¨ he concedes. ¨It´s almost more of a labor of love than an investment. I can´t tell you how many times I´ve been told, Oh, just tear it down!´¨

There´s a tendency to dismiss young cities like Fort Lauderdale as being bereft of history. And the momentum is distinctly anti-preservation — one look at Fort Lauderdale´s skyline and the disappearance of single-story bungalows in neighborhoods like Victoria Park tells the tale.

In other cities — like Savannah, Georgia — historic preservation boards operate independently of local politics, commissioner Hutchinson points out. ¨Instead of just reviewing and advising, the preservation board could be more pro-active, take on more of a protective role.¨

City Commission votes on the Graves House, the Stranahan House, or the Fort Lauderdale Beach Hotel all demonstrate how the city, afraid of lawsuits from deep-pocketed developers, have capitulated to their whims. As part of an effort to stem the tide, the city is looking into hiring a full-time preservation officer. ¨Someone who´d eat, sleep, and drink historic preservation,¨ Hutchinson says. ¨Someone who can figure out how we can give people incentives to declare their properties historic.¨

Developers have always led the land booms in Broward County, from downtown speculators in the 1930s to land-grabbers like the Bergeron family to the condominium kings of the past decade. Realtor Andy Weiser, who can´t wait for the chance to sell downtown penthouse units on the Las Olas site where the Hyde Park Market once stood, decries the ¨small and entirely too vocal antidevelopment crowd.¨ On his webpage, he points out that seeking to recoup damage done by not being able to exercise property rights is a viable tactic. The threat of ¨lawsuit(s) the city can ill afford¨ can give a project the momentum to get it through the complicated land-use process, he suggests.

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