The House That Bill Built

On a windy Chicago afternoon last May, world-class triathlete David Bigoney threw the ceremonial first pitch at a White Sox-Texas Rangers game. Chicago won 7-0. "And that started their winning streak," he jokes now. The Tallahassee sports fanatic closely monitored the team's dream season through its stunning World Series victory, though he didn't see a single game.

Bigoney, 33, has been blind since December 27, 1996, when he became caught in a high-profile murder/suicide that shocked Fort Lauderdale out of its usual holiday holding pattern. That was the night his stepmother shot him and killed his father — illustrious local architect Bill Bigoney — then took her own life.

The shooting's aftermath left David in the hospital for weeks, with no memory of what had happened. With his dreams derailed, he grudgingly settled into the routine of what he calls "learning to be blind." Emerging from that rehabilitation to complete a college degree was one way to reclaim what he'd lost. "But I couldn't take not being active," he says in a lazy Panhandle drawl. So he began bicycling, running, and swimming, training for competitions.

Upon completing his first race, David felt as if he'd found a way to beat back his blindness. "I was sore, but I enjoyed it. It was something I could get into, something that keeps me balanced, mentally and physically.

"Things aren't 'Can I or can't I?,'" he continues, "but 'How can I do it? What exactly do I have to do?'" This summer, he completed the Ironman Triathlon, a tortuous, daylong blowout not for the faint of heart or weak of limb.

An upcoming film documentary, Victory Over Darkness, tells the stories of three visually impaired athletes, including David. In its trailer, he talks about coming to terms with the awful consequences of that post-Christmas nightmare, as crime-scene stills (including a pair of dead bodies, a trash can overflowing with prescription bottles, and a wall stained with blood) flash by.

To this day, friends and associates keep personal details private, though the marital discord afflicting the Bigoneys was no secret.

Finally, perhaps as a way of dealing with opening old wounds, David is able to talk about exactly what happened that night. He can't see anything but shadows now. But back then, he says, he could see disaster coming.

The same drive that had already propelled David to the rank of petty officer second class after only four years in the Navy and left him a highly decorated Eagle Scout also characterized Bill Bigoney.

Sailing was the elder Bigoney's lifetime love, and father and son tore through the waves from West Palm Beach to the Bahamas as often as possible during their time together. Don Wilkin, who worked for Bigoney's architecture firm in the mid-1980s, learned to sail at his employer's side. Weekend races brought out Bigoney's competitive edge, and he enjoyed nothing more than making the tight turn around the St. Isaac's Lighthouse.

"He'd get everything out of that thing," says Wilkin, a trim, balding man with an impish grin who favors penny loafers. "I'd think we were going to flip over for sure, but he could push it, because he knew the limits."

Bigoney never underestimated his classic 27-foot Creekmore sailboat, Spring. Nor himself. He wanted to set his own limits and exercise complete control over every aspect of his life, including, to a large extent, those around him. His revolutionary architecture took big risks as well — who'd think of designing South Florida domiciles with no air conditioning? For Bigoney, if he spent enough time on a project, he could always make it work.

His lucky streak ended with his third wife, Margaret.

"Bill would have had a ball the last ten years with the development that has occurred in Fort Lauderdale," says Wilkin, who still feels the loss today. "It's an opportunity he would just relish."

"I have no doubt in my mind he would have retired a happy sailor," David Bigoney says. "But, you know, it just didn't work out that way."

Two weeks before Christmas '96, David called an officer to the home after he and his stepmother got into a yelling match. "I don't try to hide that I got into verbal arguments with her about stupid things," he says. "It just got to the point where no conversation, no interaction, seemed to be nice."

David was unaware Margaret kept a Smith & Wesson blue-steel revolver somewhere in her bedroom. If he had known, "I would have either taken it or said something," he insists.

His girlfriend (now his wife) Jackie had planned to spend that Christmas with the Bigoneys but couldn't make the trip. "If she was in the house," David says, "I guarantee she would have been shot and probably killed."

His parents' marriage was imploding before his eyes. "My father wasn't easy to live with, and she had some serious mental issues. Put those two together, and it's a ticking time bomb. Then add me to the situation — someone who's not going to take any crap because he's 23, cocky, and thinks he's invincible."

Today, Don Wilkin's voice jostles with jocularity, but on the 911 tapes from the morning of December 27, 1996, it was quaking in shock. "We've got a real problem here," he can be heard saying. "We've got a murder." That call brought more than a dozen patrol officers, homicide detectives, and medical examiners to the Bigoney residence. Despite the fact that he was the architect who had designed the Fort Lauderdale Police Station and jail, his wasn't a household name among local cops.

From their initial reports, it's obvious the Bigoney house was far from what they typically encountered, and with good reason. The house back in the trees looked like a modernist sculpture. Walls weren't actually walls at all but swinging doors that were themselves made up of pivoting louvered panels. A narrow, screened walkway encircled the home; at first, officers were baffled about how to gain entrance.

"I didn't even know what air conditioning was until I was 16," David Bigoney says. His dad's creations relied on louvered and hinged doors, movable slats, and jalousies designed to make new-fangled modes of ventilation unnecessary. The home he grew up in was no different.

In the late 1960s, Bigoney had carved out a piece of exotic, unspoiled riverfront land in Sailboat Bend to construct personal sanctuaries that allowed him to experiment, homes that worked in concert with their surroundings, took chances, and embraced functionality as much as form.

His own residence, tucked between the north fork of the New River and a small canal, exemplified his approach. Built in 1969, the tree-covered home was made up of two "pods" — one for the living room and kitchen and the other for the bedrooms — connected by an open-air breezeway.

The man himself walked with a similar presence and grace. Guayabera shirts of every hue, matched with cotton pants, were his uniform. "He hated to wear a suit and tie," Wilkin says. "Actually, he wouldn't wear a tie." This predilection for comfort was one of Bigoney's trademarks, Wilkin says. "He was very casual, and he dressed for the climate."

With a cupola to help exhaust hot air, the home functioned as a living, breathing part of its locale, offering complete cross-ventilation. Most stunning was the rear of the home, elevated on pilings over the canal. Bigoney constructed the kitchen floor with alternating panels of plexiglass and wood, and at high tide, fish, crabs, and even manatees could be seen swimming beneath the dinner table.

William Francis Bigoney studied under Walter Gropius, the Berlin-based founder of the pivotal Bauhaus movement. Bigoney took the ultramodern sleekness of the Bauhaus designs and adapted them to South Florida's climate. Growing up on Long Island, Bigoney developed his love for boating and architecture early on. He started school at the Pratt Institute in NYC and completed his graduate school work at Harvard, where Gropius was his instructor and mentor. He and his first wife, Marjorie, moved to Fort Lauderdale in 1950, where he started small.

Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jim Naugle first noticed Bill Bigoney as a regular customer in his parents' paint store on Andrews Avenue. They bonded at the Gulfstream Sailing Club in the 1970s, and both held positions on the city's Marine Advisory Board. In fact, their connection went back further than that: Naugle was born in a Bigoney home at 1242 Cordova Rd. That structure, he explains, was notable for trademarks like sliding walls that converted large rooms into smaller ones, indigenous materials like cypress and oolite limestone, plus plenty of natural ventilation. Naugle was impressed by the elder captain's skills, and when he was invited to Bigoney's home for an after-race party, he was smitten with the modern masterpiece and its secluded tropical surroundings.

Like most first-time visitors, Naugle had no idea anything lived down the dirt road except raccoons and opossums. "Man," he thought, "I'd really love to be back here someday."

A few years later, his wish was granted when Bigoney sold Naugle a portion of the property. The two discussed a radical bachelor pad, essentially a one-room house atop a four-car garage. Bigoney drew up the plans. "His philosophy was to work in concert with the site itself," Naugle explains, "to take into consideration the wind, the trees, the sunlight." Walls were equipped with pivoted panels to direct the breezes. Naugle says he never missed air-conditioning.

During the 1960s, Bigoney had designed floor plans for new Fort Lauderdale subdivisions with a local developer, Bob Gill, who built hundreds of homes in Fort Lauderdale. These modernist dwellings inevitably feature jalousie windows oriented to catch and channel air flow. He and Marjorie divorced, and in 1968, he married Constance Louise Fetterman, who joined the design firm as bookkeeper. David was born in October 1973, a year after his sister, Amy. The '70s found Bigoney père working on custom home projects, and much of Bigoney's work in the 1980s consisted of building resorts on Paradise Island in the Bahamas and luxury residences in the Las Olas Isles.

When Marjorie Bigoney moved out of her own Bigoney-designed home, Bill and Connie rented it to Don Wilkin and his wife, Sharon. During the mid-1980s, Sailboat Bend's seediness didn't lure many urban pioneers, but they loved living back in the jungle, and when the chance came to buy the home, they jumped at it.

"You write my check every week, so you know what I can afford," Wilkin told Connie. So a contract was written, he explains, "structured in a way that was advantageous to us both." Wilkin remembers being burglarized twice, he says, "because we couldn't afford the $25-a-month security system."

Working at Bigoney & Associates was "one of the better opportunities a young architect could have," recalls Wilkin, who was there from 1983 until 1988. "To have him as a mentor when you're starting out, to have him pull up a stool and work with you..." Bigoney could be very direct, he says. "If he didn't like something I was working on, he'd say, 'What are you doing that for? That's awful!'"

Jeff Smith spent the '80s and '90s at Bigoney's firm, hired out of high school as an apprentice/journeyman. A self-taught draftsman, now with a design firm in Palm Beach Gardens, Smith recalls feeling intimidated by Bigoney at first. "But he was very encouraging, and everything I've done since grew out of the opportunity he gave me." The boss wanted to see his people working. "He hated seeing anyone standing around doing nothing," he remembers.

Even small projects seemed to inspire Bigoney. Wilkin remembers a tiny addition being made to an unremarkable house. "This is it?" Wilkin asked when he arrived at the job site. "What do you mean, 'This is it?'" thundered Bigoney. "Let's get into this thing!" Before Wilkin knew it, "you'd be caught up in the excitement he'd generate."

When Wilkin got an offer in 1988 to work for the large firm where he's now a partner, Bigoney gave him his immediate blessing. The next year, friends and co-workers were surprised when Bill and Connie Bigoney amicably divorced. They were even more so when he fell in love with a young woman who worked at the veterinarian's office where he took his dogs. The Wilkins attended the wedding of Bill and Margaret Ryan Nortcutt two years later, on December 22, 1990, and the two couples continued to borrow tools and wave hello during the '90s.

The marriage puzzled onlookers. "Nobody knew her very well," says Charles Jordan, then a member of the Sailboat Bend neighborhood association. "She was somewhat overweight, quite a bit younger, and it was just a very poor match." In fact, Margaret was 35 years younger than Bill. Asked what the two had in common, David is silent for a minute. "I have no idea," he finally sputters. "I honestly don't know. The truth is, my father wanted a significant other, and that was his choice. It wasn't my place to tell him what to do."

Though well into his 70s, Bigoney threw himself into Fort Lauderdale's future more than ever before. "A one-man organizational force," Wilkin calls him. Bouncing from roles as Boy Scout leader to Kiwanis member, Bigoney capitalized on daily breakfast meetings with Fort Lauderdale's movers and shakers, getting behind neighborhood associations, advisory boards, and community groups, getting his hands dirty with the city's downtown planning.

He never missed a Sailboat Bend neighborhood function. When residents talked about closing off some streets, Bigoney opposed the idea.

"Bill tore into us in that arrogant way of his," Jordan remembers. "He was always right, and he'd let you know that. Sometimes he could be condescending." Jordan compares Bigoney's flinty personality to that of the prickly Frank Lloyd Wright. The Sailboat Bend debates that rankled Bill so? "The truth of the matter is, he was right," Jordan admits today.

When he found flaws with something the city was proposing, Bigoney made his objections known. An example, Wilkin recalls, came when the city's plans for the 17th Street Causeway Bridge came with standard, FDOT-approved concrete railings that would have prevented any view of the ocean or Intracoastal. "Bill was like, 'That is not going to happen,' and he made it a cause of his to get the design changed." He put together his own studies, hired his own engineers, and convinced the city to adopt his vision instead.

"He was relentless when he got hold of something like that," Wilkin says. "But had he lost, he would have moved on."

By December 1996, Bill Bigoney had reached that particular point in his relationship with Margaret. That month, he had an attorney draft a divorce petition charging that "the Wife has dissipated and wasted marital assets by shopping excessively... despite the objection of the Husband." His lawyer advised Bill to wait until after the holidays to serve Margaret with the papers.

1996 changed David Bigoney's life forever. In February, Connie died after suffering through terminal cancer. Saddled with a full course load and the loss of his mother, David was overwhelmed and exhausted when the year-end break in classes came ten months later. Spending the holiday alone in Tallahassee sounded depressing, so when Bill called him home, he jumped at the chance.

"I was happy to come down," David says. "My dad was stressed. He was having problems with his wife, and it had gotten to a boiling point. He said he could really use the comfort."

Arriving in Fort Lauderdale, David walked into a volatile situation.

"Within a couple of hours," he recalls, "she was rambling and arguing and [getting] in his face about something. It was bad. She was not in control of herself, and he didn't even argue back — it was pointless."

On Christmas Eve, Bill and Margaret drove to the West Hollywood office of Dr. Joel Klass, a psychiatrist who had been seeing Margaret since September. Bill occasionally accompanied her to these Tuesday-night sessions. Klass told police she came to him with two main concerns — a crippling case of PMS and a simmering annoyance with David. Notes from October sessions show she complained that her husband's allegiance was to David, not to her, and that David was "untrustworthy." She also accused David of going through her possessions, and she wanted a lock for her bedroom door.

The age difference was a factor, says Margaret's mother, Maxine Alles, who was herself almost ten years younger than the man who married her daughter.

With a deep sigh, Alles says, "He was never unkind to me in any way, but his treatment of my daughter was demoralizing at best."

Margaret grew up an animal lover, delighted in the abundant wildlife on the Bigoney property, and fed and fretted over a small army of raccoons that lived near the water. "And she loved the house," Alles says. "I think she fell in love with the house first." The relationship constituted a strange match to Margaret's mother. "She was a very loving person, and he was more of a cold person, I would say. She had a good heart, but when provoked, she could let her temper go."

Alles acknowledges she keeps letters that hint at deeper family troubles but explains they're to remain secret forever.

"Genius usually has its bad side," she explains, "and a lot of people who knew Bill did consider him a control freak." But the real story, she allows, "is so much more complex. And rather than reveal extremely private information, it's much better to let those very toothy dogs lie."

During a late-November meeting with psychiatrist Klass, Bill discussed selling some of the real estate he owned. He was 75 and wanted to liquidate assets. Margaret refused to sign documents allowing the sale of one home to the Wilkins, saying that the price was far "below the appraised value." At her next visit, though, Margaret announced that she'd put her signature on the paperwork, allowing the transaction to go through.

The ante of tension was upped again with David's visit. On December 17, she complained that David received the bulk of Bill's attention. During that final meeting of December 24, she railed against the "two alpha males" who were "critical of everything she [did]." Bill protested, accusing Margaret of doing nothing around the house, and according to Klass' notes, then revealed that not only had he consulted an attorney but that he hinted at divorce.

At that point, Klass says: "She became enraged. But there was never any reference to homicide or suicide. She said, 'You're not going to do anything without me!' and she was furious."

Christmas was spent separately, Margaret visiting her mother in Victoria Park and Bill and David eating dinner at the Wilkins' home. David thinks back to a snapshot that was taken around the table that evening. "You can see the stress and the agony on my father's face," he says.

David had volunteered to paint the cabin of his father's sailboat on the following day, December 26, and he was still working on it when darkness fell. He went to visit an old buddy from high school, and they drove downtown to catch a showing of the movie Scream. They hung out for another hour until David decided to head home. He parked his red Acura in the long gravel driveway and walked up to the house, the palm trees glistening in the cold rain. It was almost midnight.

"It was unusually quiet," he remembers noticing. "So I was happy, because Margaret was always up making noise, with the TV blaring or with her snoring. But it was really quiet. I didn't think much of it. I got ready for bed; I remember it was about 12:30. I went to bed, lay down — and got my head blown up."

Don Wilkin remembers it being so wet and chilly that night that all the windows were closed, though he still woke to the sound of gunshots. "I said to my wife, 'Did you hear something?' She thought she'd been dreaming. I figured it was just the city and the time of the year," he says now. Between Christmas and New Year's celebrations, gunfire wasn't uncommon in Sailboat Bend.

The next morning, Friday the 27th, was still a seasonal slow period, but Wilkin was nonetheless due at work. He knew Bill would be there too. "Bill was a prompt guy who liked to get into the office early, holiday or no." By 8:30 a.m., Wilkin figured, his boss would probably be in the office waiting for him. So when he spotted Bigoney's Toyota van still in his driveway at 9:30, he chuckled.

"I thought, 'Ah, I'll go roust him,'" Wilkin recalls with a smile. "I didn't even shut the car off; I just put it in gear." He walked up the ramp to the Bigoneys' front door.

"And," he says, "that's as far as I got."

"She's totally insane! She's heavily medicated!" Sharon can be heard shouting on the 911 call made seconds later from the Wilkin home. "What sticks in my mind was seeing the blood dripping on the outside of the house under the window where Mr. Bigoney's head was," says Sgt. Tim Bronson, among the first on the scene. "Obviously, something was wrong when we saw that."

Police could see Bill Bigoney lying partially outside the bedroom, jutting onto the small, screened-in deck. They could also see a body inside on a bed — and they saw it move. "We didn't know what we were going into — did we have a suspect in there?" recalls Bronson, who nearly called in a SWAT team. He and two officers kicked in the door and secured each room. David was on a big, blood-soaked bed in the master bedroom, close-range gunshot wounds to his face and hand. Bill lay dead next to the bed with a single entrance wound through his left eyebrow.

Margaret was found in the closet, sprawled on the floor, surrounded by bottles of pills. She clutched a handwritten note that read, "I can no longer take the physical and mental abuse from my husband and his son please God forgive me."

David couldn't tell police anything. "He was barely alive," Bronson says. Another detective tried to question him a few hours later at Broward General Medical Center. "David was not cognizant of where he was," the report states. "He felt that he had fallen and mentioned something about an ice palace."

From the trail of blood, investigators surmised that David had somehow managed to make it from his bedroom to his father's side, despite his condition. A supplemental crime scene report concludes that despite his injuries, David may have "attempted to move William." As to what really happened, David says pointedly, "I have no recollection of that whatsoever."

"I have no recollection of that whatsoever," he repeats, each word guarded by a don't-go-there shield. "The next thing I remember is waking up to the sound of my neurosurgeon's voice asking me if I knew my name, which I did. If I knew where I was, which I did not. And he asked me if I knew what happened to me. I said no. He proceeded to tell me that I'd been shot in the head and my right hand, that my father was shot and killed, and the person who did this was my stepmother.

"He wanted to see what kind of reaction he was going to get," David continues, "and he didn't get much of one. So that was that." Remaining bitterness, he explains, is really "the anger I harbor about not being as completely independent as I can be."

Nine years after the fact, David Bigoney has no regrets about traveling home that Christmas. The wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time adage doesn't fit, he says.

"I was exactly where I needed to be — next to my father. That was my place. It's unfortunate that I lost my sight, but if I'd died, at least I'd have died with my father knowing I stood by him."

Dr. Klass theorizes that Margaret transferred angry childhood feelings over to Bill. "When you have a spouse who's 35 years older," he remarks, "that's a much, much more likely scenario." Announcing the divorce probably precipitated her unraveling, he says; coupled with the perceived threat from the "united front" of David and Bill, it was like "mixing the two together [to produce] the gasoline and the match."

In hindsight, "I would say she was an indulged child with a child's appetites and rages, plus she wanted the easy pleasure of an unconcerned childhood. And if anything didn't go her way — pow."

A crime scene photo from the master bathroom shows a wastebasket filled to the top with empty pill bottles. Only one was prescribed by Klass — Prozac. According to police reports, family practitioner Dr. Irving Bratt had written her prescriptions for Paxil, Doxcycline, Ultram, Cyclobenzaprin, Atenolol, Meclizine, Adipex-P, Pondimin, Alprazolam, Verelan, and Synthroid, to address a variety of medical complaints, including PMS and back pain.

Also found, police say, were letters from Margaret and other family members alluding to past incidents of "physical and emotional abuse" involving Bill.

David doesn't deny that his father could be controlling at times. "He wasn't the easiest man to live with in the world — at all. I tried to live with him, and it didn't work out. We'd just butt heads. He wanted things his way, and there was no room for compromise."

Klass, who remembers Bill Bigoney as "highly regarded, a lovely man, and a very nice person," found his relationship with Margaret perplexing. "I'll tell you the big puzzle for me," he says. "Why did he marry her?"

Unaware until now of David Bigoney's achievements, Klass sounds thrilled to hear about his journey out of the abyss. "That makes my day," he says. "It tells you a lot about his genetics."

Though he began taking classes in 1995, David didn't graduate until last August. He holds a Florida State University degree in information technology, and his focus is on Americans With Disabilities Act compliance for web pages. Part of the work he does now involves testing software that helps blind individuals to decipher text on even the most graphics-laden websites.

Naugle sees David's accomplishments as a natural extension of his childhood in Sailboat Bend. "I attribute it to his scouting background. He'd make a great motivational speaker."

Don Wilkin leans back in his chair and marvels at the outcome of a story that had veered into some dark and treacherous terrain. David's casual, sure-footed mastery of his life is beyond inspirational, he says. "I would never have been able to do what he's done," Wilkin believes. "I close my eyes and wonder how. But I know this much — his father would have done the same damned thing, for sure."

In 1999, South African advertising guru Kim Nothard was looking for a place in Fort Lauderdale where he and his wife, architect Margi Glavovic Nothard, could raise a family. He found the Bill Bigoney house for sale and e-mailed a picture to Margi. It looked rundown, with coats of dingy gray paint inside, but the sight of its sharp lines lurking in the jungle intrigued her. The real-estate agent making the sale was Jim Naugle, who wrestled with whether to disclose to buyers what had happened.

"We determined there was no duty, but in a practical sense, you could have a deal fall apart if you didn't," Naugle says. "So I got permission to disclose."

Margi — an urban and regional planning professor at FAU with a master's from the Southern California Institute of Architecture — wouldn't have cared if the home had been a slaughterhouse. Its uniqueness transcended all other considerations. "We don't even think about it," she says in a pristinely cultured accent. "It's a privilege to live in his house in keeping with his vision. It is my sanctuary."

So formidable was his talent and originality, Bill Bigoney's works are accorded the same dignity and respect as any other significant regional architect in South Florida — which is to say, very little. It takes a certain type of person to appreciate a Bigoney home, like the Nothards, who love it, leaky skylights and all. "It's a commitment," she says. To not honor his work is unthinkable to her. But it happens all the time.

In December 2003, Home Fort Lauderdale, a local architecture magazine, ran an illustrated spread on another Bigoney creation considered "mid-century modernism at its finest," according to Publisher John O'Connor. Inside the Bonnie Heath House at 1799 N. Fort Lauderdale Beach Blvd., Bigoney created a custom-built oceanfront refuge as a perfect union of utilitarianism and taste. Built in 1955, the two-story space was designed so that walking in the front door revealed a panoramic "ribbon of glass... a massive, transparent living room... a see-through house."

"I wanted to make sure somebody who understood modernism bought it and cared for it," O'Connor says unhappily. "The people who bought it didn't read my article, I'm sure, because then they destroyed the exterior, destroyed the interior, and put on these Home Depot front doors with leaded glass. It's the worst. They might as well have just torn it down."

On a recent weeknight, Margi Nothard flicks on some mood lighting and opens the doors, allowing a subtropical breeze to sweep through her living room. Something splashes in the water beneath the kitchen floor.

Apart from adding central air, the Nothards haven't changed the house at all, just stripping the gray paint off the cherry-wood doors and floors. Margi brings students and fellow architects to come and gawk with amazement.

The Nothards' two young sons prowl the property now, spending much of their time underneath and around the house, in or on the water. "Bill Bigoney's intention," Margi Nothard states, "is that you don't shut off the outside — or its quality of life — from the inside. We look down and see fiddler crabs, and we look up and see the ospreys flying. What are we going to complain about?"

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Jeff Stratton
Contact: Jeff Stratton