The House That Bill Built

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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.

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Jeff Stratton
Contact: Jeff Stratton