Storm brewing over historic Miami homes

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Preservationists urge City to rein in developers’ desire to replace older properties with “McMansions”

The 1920s building designed by Walter De Garmo at 27 Star Island is due to be moved and restored. Photo: © Romaine Maurice

Bigger is not always better, say those seeking to preserve Miami Beach’s historic single-family homes, which are being bulldozed to make room for new super-sized mansions. This year has seen a 30% rise in the number of petitions to demolish homes built before 1942—the cut-off year used by the City of Miami Beach to designate historic significance. The recent razing of a 1920s Mediterranean Revival home on ultra-exclusive Star Island following a lengthy battle between preservationists and a high-profile Miami Beach couple has led campaigners to call for a change in the regulations to protect these historic properties and curb the proliferation of “McMansions”.

“This upward trend is very disconcerting,” says Daniel Ciraldo, a historic preservation officer at the non-profit Miami Design Preservation League (MDPL) who was involved in the fight to save 42 Star Island, an 8,000 sq. ft house built in 1925 by Miami’s first registered architect, Walter De Garmo. Leonard Hochstein, a plastic surgeon known locally as the “Boob God”, and his wife, Lisa, a former cast member of the reality television series “The Real Housewives of Miami”, bought the property in 2012 and sought to demolish it to make room for a new home nearly twice the size.

Preservationists objected, arguing that the house was an important part of the historic fabric of the city and moved to have it listed as a historic property. (To be eligible for historic designation, a building must meet at least one of eight criteria, including possessing intrinsically high artistic merit and embodying the distinctive characteristics of a historical period.) The Hochsteins fought back. “If this was a historic home, I wouldn’t have bought it. To go and try to do this after the fact, against my will, is really unsettling,” Leonard Hochstein told the New York Times in 2013. He also said: “The house is not habitable… it’s not a home that can be preserved.” After months of wrangling and two lawsuits (both were eventually dropped), the City gave the green light for the house’s demolition in March.

The razing of the De Garmo property illustrates the vulnerability of architecturally significant houses that fall outside historic districts. Star Island is not a historic district, and because the house was not designated a historic property, the City did not have the power to prevent its demolition. “We think it’s too simple to get permission to tear down a property and replace it with a new one nowadays,” Ciraldo says. “We’re urging the City to rein this in.”

The MDPL is calling for buildings outside historic districts that are more than 50 years old and proposed for demolition to be reviewed by the historic preservation board to see if they warrant a designation. “Coral Gables enacted a similar review process around ten years ago that has prevented historically significant properties from being demolished,” Ciraldo says.

“Development here is crazy”

Developers out to flip properties are behind 80% of demolitions, Ciraldo says. “They stand to make a huge windfall by bulldozing a smaller home and building a bigger home in its place,” he says. For example, a developer razed a 1920s waterfront property on North Bay Road to make room for a much larger house; the property was bought for around $10m and is currently on the market for $37m.

“Development here is crazy… it’s off the chain. The land value is just so high,” says James Murphy, a principal planner for the City of Miami Beach and chief of staff to the City’s Design Review Board, which has the final say on the look of a new home. He agrees that the number of demolitions is alarming and says that local historic designation is key to the preservation efforts.

Preservation options

Another Star Island resident is taking an innovative approach to preserving his 1924 De Garmo-designed house in what Ciraldo calls “a positive development in preservation”. The owner of 27 Star Island, John Jansheski, plans to restore the original house and its 1926 guest cottage, which will be brought together to create one structure, then raised to meet the new flood level requirements and rolled across the property to make room for a new home on the one-acre lot. When the project is finished, the lot will have two houses taking up 25,000 sq. ft.

“It would have been much easier to demolish it—it certainly would have been less expensive to go that route—but we felt compelled to preserve this building, enjoy it and have it be part of the property. And the community appears to be thrilled that we’re going to keep it,” says Mark Jansheski, the owner’s brother and the project manager for the venture.

Although Murphy calls the efforts to raise and move the house “remarkable” and credits the team with stripping the house back to its core to get rid of its “regrettable additions”, he says: “But let’s call a spade a spade—they are moving it out of the way so that they can build a new, very large house.” But Mark Jansheski makes no bones about the fact that he is adding value to the property. “I wouldn’t say that we are doing it entirely out of love. Don’t get me wrong, we do love it, but it also makes economic sense. Here’s why: we end up with two very special buildings on the same very large, one-acre lot.”

It appears as though other residents are taking notice. In late October, the property newspaper Real Deal reported that lawyers acting on behalf of Stuart Miller, the chief executive of the US home-building giant Lennar Corp and the owner of 22 Star Island, asked for Miller’s application to demolish his 1930s house, to make room for a 22,000 sq. ft home, to be delayed so that he could explore options for the redevelopment of the property, including “reasonable alternatives to demolition, such as rehabilitation and/or relocation of the existing structures”.

Miami’s architectural heritage at risk

Bay Harbor’s East Island MiMo buildings: A surge in redevelopment projects caused the National Trust for Historic Preservation to add the mid-century Miami Modern (MiMo)-style buildings of Bay Harbor’s East Island to its list of 11 most endangered historic places in June. “Stylistically inappropriate and obviously out of scale, new development is quickly threatening the unique quality of life and distinctive architectural character of Bay Harbor Islands,” states the website for Keep Bay Harbor Islands Beautiful, a local group formed to “stop insensitive overdevelopment”. The area features buildings by some of the leading architects of the period, including Morris Lapidus and Charles McKirahan, and residents protesting against overdevelopment include the local interior designer Teri D’Amico, who helped to coin the term MiMo.

Historic courtyard of the Miami Beach Community Church: A controversial plan to build shops in the century-old courtyard of the Miami Beach Community Church on Lincoln Road suffered a setback in October, when City officials ordered the Historic Preservation Board to reconsider an appeal to block the $100m scheme. The decision comes after it was revealed that church officials failed to tell the board that the church had received $500,000 from the developers Tri Star Capital. Church officials say that the money was a rent payment for the 50-year lease of the property. “The ruling was a bit of a setback,” the Reverend Harold Thompson told the Miami Herald. “But we’ll be glad to go back to the Historic Preservation Board and make our case.”

Miami Marine Stadium: Last month, City commissioners rejected a $121m, privately funded plan to rehabilitate Hilario Candela’s thin-shelled concrete grandstand and transform the area on Virginia Key into a major maritime complex. The plan was proposed by the Friends of Miami Marine Stadium, a non-profit organisation. Mayor Tomás Regalado told CBS Miami that although the City did not agree to the “grandiose plans” proposed, it will move forward with plans to restore the stadium and preparations for bringing the Miami International Boat Show to Virginia Key. A revised plan is due to be presented in January. Meanwhile, in September, the Getty Foundation gave an $180,000 conservation grant to study the stadium’s structure.

A “MiMo” building: the Bay Harbor Continental, 1958, designed by Charles McKirahan. Photo: Andrew Zahn

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