Raze the Roof

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

At any rate, he says, ¨if you imagine that political wrangling ahead and no ground breaking date in sight has deterred prospective buyers, you do not understand the dynamics of Fort Lauderdale real estate.¨ The demand for new construction, he points out, is never-ending. Broward County housing prices rose 31 percent between spring 2004 and spring 2005, but supply dipped by 10 percent, Weiser points out. The average price for a single-family home is $330,000, a hurdle that doesn´t seem to faze buyers.

Though a city ordinance makes accepting campaign contributions over $250 illegal, commissioners can find ways to profit, usually on the back end of such decisions.

¨Maybe someone promises ´em a job a few years down the road,¨ opines Peter Abreu.

Nolan Haan didn´t exactly move heaven and Earth to get his hands on an Abreu house, but he came awfully close. And just as he realized his prize, he watched it nearly sink to the bottom of the New River. On the morning of Friday, December 7, 1996, Haan finally saw the Oliver House, a rare boxy Abreu colonial four-bedroom, lifted off its foundation in Smoker Park. From there, the two-story, 220-ton home was placed on steel beams with wheels attached. A tractor slowly towed the house to the water´s edge, preparing to transfer it onto a waiting barge for a trip to Sailboat Bend.

In a split second, the whole rig jack-knifed from the weight, sending the front tractor dangling between the seawall and the barge. ¨It would have pulled the house over the edge along with it,¨ winces Haan. The house partially slid onto the barge, which had tilted from the tonnage, its bow poking halfway out of the water. A fire rescue squad arrived and pumped water into the barge´s ballast compartments, allowing it to level itself. Suddenly, the untethered house went careening. As the barge struggled to remain upright, the house slipped and skidded, finally coming to rest at the bow, against a short iron rail.

¨The barge owner told me he´d almost taken that railing out to have more space,¨ Haan says, sitting on a couch in the sunlit living room of the Oliver House, a piano etude spilling from a speaker hidden behind a curtain. ¨He said he was prepared to go swimming.¨

Unlike the owners of most other Abreu properties, the redhaired, freckle-faced Haan was no millionaire. He bought a vacant lot in crime- and crack-ridden Sailboat Bend for $13,000 in 1993. Three years later, ¨I ended up getting $50,000 in cash and the house for free,¨ he muses. The Historic Preservation Board approved a demolition permit for the abandoned home in 1995. Covered with graffiti inside and out, the 1924 structure had done time as a thrift store and a DMV office before succumbing to neglect. Abreu had built it for David Oliver, the first city treasurer of Fort Lauderdale.

To avoid the tarnish of allowing a developer to demolish another historic building downtown, Naugle appealed the ruling, and the commission worked out a compromise that allowed Haan to pocket $25,000 each from the city and the developer just to haul the thing away.

The ordeal was far from painless, though. Haan had to pay $30,000 to move the house. The barge rental alone ran $10,000. It cost $4,000 for every traffic light that had to be removed and replaced while the house was trucked from the Performing Arts Center to its new home. It was a three-day process just to get it there and then four years before Haan could move in. An artist by trade, he chuckles, ¨I had faux finish in here before I had running water.¨

On large lots, developers can (and do) replace them with three townhomes that sell for as much as $500,000 each. ¨And they tax my land as if I can do the same thing!¨ Haan gripes. He says a developer offered him $400,000 for his house — with a clause that says the historic designation must be withdrawn. ¨There are no breaks if you have a historic house that limits what you can do with your property. Not one penny. I asked [Broward County Property Appraiser] Lori Parrish why they´re doing that, and she said, Tear down your house. Just tear it down. ´¨

The calculators that make those decisions are faulty, Haan thinks. ¨How do you factor in that it´s an Abreu, that it´s the Oliver House? They don´t know how to compute that.¨

The only thing he can do to make sure the house outlives him, Haan figures, is to eventually sell it ¨for a high enough price to force a buyer to appreciate all those intangibles.¨

Last year, a local plastic surgeon, Harry Moon, saved a 1926 Abreu apartment building from a developer who planned to demolish it. The City Commission had declared Himmarshee Court historic in 1999, but the building nearly crumbled in the years that followed. The stucco-and-clay-tile building — recently remodeled and doubled in size — is now Moon´s new clinic.

Levine, whose office is nearby, doesn´t understand the decision to renovate Himmarshee Court. ¨To me, it looks nothing like what was originally there,¨ he grumbles.

He´s far more pleased with the mansion that replaced the Gypsy Graves House. Property records show the new house at 1115 N. Rio Vista was sold in June for $6.7 million. ¨What we put back there is very similar in design, only it´s substantially larger,¨ he adds. ¨It´s 11,000 square feet under roof. It´s occupied by Nick Saban, the coach of the Dolphins, and I think it´s an enhancement to the City of Fort Lauderdale.¨

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