On Saturday morning, Charlie Esposito woke up to a loud, screeching racket. But the Fort Lauderdale Beach homeowner couldn’t bring himself to go outside. After spending more than a year fighting developers to preserve Alhambra Street’s historic Art Moderne buildings, Esposito knew it was the sound of defeat. A piece of Fort Lauderdale beach architecture history was coming down for good.
“It just sounded terrible,” Esposito tells New Times. “It’s hard to believe that we couldn’t save it. I couldn’t stand to watch it go down.”
The Villa Torino is the second building demolished on Alhambra Street in the last year. The two-story stucco apartment, with scored horizontal lines, asymmetrical design, and a stepped chimney, was awarded historic status by the city’s Historic Preservation Board in an 8-to-1 ruling. Commissioners overturned that recommendation last July, so as prices skyrocket and developers inch their way up the coast, residents like Esposito find themselves battling multimillion-dollar developers to preserve the quaint aesthetic of their neighborhoods.
“A lot of people fight for nothing, but this is something,” he says. “I didn’t care how long it took, but getting anything past the commission was like throwing a hamburger through a brick wall.”
OTO Development had plans to demolish the structures to build a ten-story, 175-room AC Hotel by Marriott. A quaint, single family home from 1936 was awaiting a hearing before the Historic Preservation Board but was demolished before that could happen. Residents like Esposito vowed to save two other properties on the street — the 1936 Villa Torino and another 1938 building designed by famed architect Courtney Stewart (who also designed the Coca-Cola bottling plant on Andrews Avenue) — from suffering a similar fate. Esposito and another neighbor petitioned the city in court to have the commission’s judgment reviewed.
Last month, Miami-based Key International purchased three parcels, which include the demolished 1930s home, Villa Torino, and the property designed by Courtney Stewart on Alhambra Street for $9.6 million. Vice President Dan Mathason told the Sun-Sentinel the company was in “no hurry to develop” the property, but last week residents reported a bulldozer there and learned the company had filed for a demolition permit. Esposito’s attorney rushed to apply for an emergency injunction, but by the time the bulldozer pulled up at Villa Torino, the court had not responded.
“If they were in no rush to develop it, then why did they have to demolish this pristine historical building?” says Steve Glassman, president of the Broward Trust for Historic Preservation. “It makes you scratch your head.”
Esposito believes developers only sprang into action to demolish the property before a court ruling might have prevented them from developing the street. But developers don’t see it that way. They believe the fight for historic preservation is a veiled attempt by residents to keep their ocean views.
“The building was altered so much that it couldn’t be historic,” says Inigo Ardid, copresident of Key International. “This was not about a building but about how people find loopholes to not get their views blocked.”
Either way, residents are disheartened. Esposito wants to protect the last remaining Art Moderne structure on the street: the four-unit Alhambra Beach resort. It was designed by Courtney Stewart, who, in addition to the Coca-Cola bottling plant, built iconic buildings across the city including McCrory’s Store, Fort Lauderdale High School, Blanche Ely High School, and more.
“Our history isn’t as old or as esteemed as the architecture that goes back hundreds of years,” says Glassman. “But it is ours. Can you imagine how the cities up north would look if they had the same attitude and believed nothing was worth preserving?”
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