A crowd of neighbors collected in front of the palatial spread, unable to believe what they were seeing. ¨It was absolutely the most pathetic and sad thing you could ever imagine,¨ remembers Leslie Curley, born and raised in the Rio Vista neighborhood.
Mayor Jim Naugle lived just down the street from the condemned estate and was driving his daughter, Rachel, home from daycare that afternoon. He watched stone-faced as the home he´d known since childhood was laid to waste, sections of masonry walls crumbling and buckling. The enormity of what was taking place on his watch, no less overtook him.
¨Oh, Rachel,¨ he cried, ¨this was such a beautiful house! It´s such a shame that it´s being torn down. This is a terrible tragedy!¨
Even 4-year-old Rachel knew empty lots in Rio Vista didn´t stay that way for long. She looked at her father and touched his arm gently. ¨Don´t worry, Daddy,¨ she consoled him, ¨they´ll build a new one.¨
On the street in front of the house, bystanders wept as the equipment went to work. Among them was Kate Gaskill, who grew up in the house. Her well-known mother, an archaeologist and socialite, had lived there so long that it was named after her. ¨It´s a good thing she was out of town,¨ Gaskill remarks. ¨It would have been like watching your child die on the operating table.¨
Everyone in town called it the Gypsy Graves House.
Local attorney and developer Lawrence Levine unabashedly introduces himself as ¨the one that tore it down.¨
He blames the City of Fort Lauderdale for failing to guard its own treasures. The case, he argues, leaves little doubt over the cause of the home´s undoing. The real killer, he says, was his calculator.
¨It was an economic decision,¨ Levine explains curtly. ¨The house was not capable of being restored at a price you could then sell it for. The land was just too valuable.¨
The house at 1115 N. Rio Vista Blvd. was no ordinary dwelling. It was possibly Abreu´s finest design, packed with all the details and amenities that characterized his mid-1920s Mediterranean Revival projects. Its floors were constructed of interlocking slabs of rare, flat, hollow, barrel tiles from Cuba. It sported soaring archways, huge stained-glass windows, French doors that opened onto expansive courtyards, wrought-iron railings and lanterns, a dressing room, a butler´s pantry, a paneled study, old wood floors, massive fireplaces, balconies, and a swimming pool, plus a commanding, panoramic view of the New River.
It was, in short, an architectural jewel, presiding over tree-lined Rio Vista with a matronly grace, even though it was partially hidden from the road. The classic elements that could be seen and its imposing courtyard walls helped define the neighborhood´s upper-crust character. And the house was full of stories and secrets.
According to local legend, one of Al Capone´s henchmen, Jack ¨Machine-Gun¨ McGurn, had planned the St. Valentine´s Day Massacre at the dining-room table. There was even a hidden room under the stairs accessible only through a trick door in a powder room. There were rumors that McGurn had secreted a stash of Tommy guns in there, and Graves never denied it. She´d fallen in love with the home just from looking at it from the street and she moved in when her daughter was only a month old.
¨I lived there 37 years, and I loved the old place,¨ Graves says today. Back in the 1950s, she remembers, the mayor was a kid she called still calls Jimmy. She and his mother were bowling partners. ¨I regret it many a time,¨ she sighs, ¨but financially, I was in a bind. It shouldn´t have happened. They destroyed something more important than money could buy.¨
The home was so well-constructed, its supporters point out, that it took three days to tear it down. ¨It was an enchanted place to grow up,¨ Gaskill says. ¨On the river, with a beautiful pool and tropical plants as a backdrop.¨
Three months before the home´s demise, the Historic Preservation Board of Fort Lauderdale, realizing it lay in a developer´s sights, had voted unanimously to declare it a historic structure. But the board is an advisory committee lacking the power to make decisions without political interference, and during a City Commission meeting the following month, its recommendation was swept aside. The sole voice to save the landmark was Mayor Naugle´s.
¨If you look in a dictionary for a definition of a historic house, they would have Gypsy Graves´ house in there,¨ he says. The night of the vote troubled him even more than watching the bulldozers attack the house. That, he recalls, felt like signing a death warrant which the city issued July 24 in the form of a demolition permit. ¨That was the worst,¨ he says.
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 Lauderdale magazine, 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.
¨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.
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.¨
¨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.¨
¨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.
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.¨
Christopher Eck, director of the Broward County Historical Society, begs to differ, seeing instead ¨a cartoonish representation that replicates what had been there.¨ Instead of the earth-toned nobility of the Graves estate, its replacement is a typically ostentatious small hotel, as if one of the enormous trophy homes that dominate the county´s western suburban fringes had uprooted, fattened itself on fake colonnades, and moved downtown. Its huge, red-ochre bulk nestles up against its neighbors like a spoiled windbag puffing a cigar during a dinner party.
Neighbor Leslie Curley derisively calls it ¨a starter castle.¨
Gaskill recently came across a pen-and-ink drawing of her mother´s old house, and she says she wants to present it to Saban. But a spokesman for the Dolphins, Harvey Greene, says Saban ¨wouldn´t be able to even think about that until after the football season.¨ He adds: ¨For security and personal reasons, he´s very private about this stuff. It´s not a gated community.¨
Eck chuckles at interior designer VanVoast´s mention of a ¨Destroyer´s Curse,¨ but she remains dead serious. ¨I would hope that it wouldn´t follow the people who bought it, because it´s not their fault. It´s on [Levine´s] head,¨ VanVoast says ominously. O´Connor calls developers who tear down valuable old properties ¨greedy pigs¨ and says of Levine´s windfall, ¨I hope he spends it all on doctor´s bills.¨
Levine doesn´t understand the animosity. ¨There was no guilt,¨ he says. ¨It was an open transaction. The city should have come along and bought it or had someone else buy it. If people are so concerned about preserving the work of Francis Abreu, they should designate his houses as historic.¨
At least one more Abreu structure´s days are numbered. In January, the city voted unanimously to remove the old Post Office from the Himmarshee Street historic district so it can be torn down and replaced with a new maritime museum. ¨The building had been bastardized,¨ says Bengochea, noting that it has stood empty and gutted for years. Says Hutchinson: ¨There was nothing left to save.¨
But Jordan says Abreu´s original plan for the Post Office was for three stories, not the one-story one that was built. He believes that, if the old blueprints were consulted, a museum could be constructed along those lines. Eck decries the city´s ¨gerrymandering¨ in the historic district to placate another development project downtown.
¨It was a cute little maneuver that pulled that one building out of the historic district so it could be demolished,¨ says Smart, calling the tactic ¨another indication of our disregard for preservation.¨
But the deal is done, and the Post Office´s date with destiny approaches. Vacant for almost a decade, it is fenced off from public view.
¨We´re the custodians of our own history,¨ Smart says. ¨And the city doesn´t see that.¨
Hutchinson, battered by the salvos of preservationists, won´t argue with that. ¨We need to do a better job,¨ she says. ¨I mean, we´ve already talked the talk.¨