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The Building boom

The South Florida skyline is changing. As developers are squeezed for land, the historic homes that once defined South Florida are slowly disappearing – mid-rise condo buildings and townhomes taking their place. Soon, we may not even recognize the place we call “home.”

Imagine for a minute just how crazy things were in boomtown Florida in the 1920s. 
Before then, it was the wild frontier. Settlers who arrived on mule carts lived in canvas tents, with primitive Seminole villages just a few miles west. 
Then came a land rush. Developers dumped beach sand into swamps. Whole neighborhoods appeared where cypress forests had held ground for millennia. Trading posts turned into downtowns.
Builders knew Northerners would be skeptical that they were trying to pawn off useless swampland. So they tried to lure them here with homes designed with an artful flair. Architects Addison Mizner and Francis Abreu created Spanish-Revival homes that popped up next to craftsman wood-frame bungalows. 
The homes were built for vacationing snowbirds who didn’t need big closets. Bathrooms were just as small, and bedrooms were barely big enough for a two-person mattress. But the cottages were stylish enough to headline posters and pastel-colored postcards that beckoned the winter-weary. 
Then it all went away. The devastating 1926 hurricane, the Depression, World War II – they killed the housing market in Florida. Things really didn’t get going again until the ’50s, when developers opted for simple, rectangle houses of cinder block. 
There’s a second boom time now in South Florida. And with little vacant land left, developers have begun turning to those 1920s homes. 
In some South Florida towns, historic homes are protected, relics of the past that must, by rule, be preserved. In others, they’re too small for today’s world and often replaced by so-called McMansions that fill almost every square foot of the historic plots. 
What follows are stories of three places, three towns that value these homes far differently. Which way is right? Which way is excessive oversight or too forgetful of the past? Boomtown pioneer, that’s for you to decide.

The Front Lines of Fort Lauderdale’s New Prosperity

In 1981, Jack and Diane Brewer paid $155,000 for a Spanish bungalow at 1107 SE Sixth St. in Fort Lauderdale’s historic Rio Vista neighborhood. That’s more than 400-grand in 
today’s dollars, damn near a fortune.

The home was designed by Francis Abreu, with a gabled barrel-tile roof, a cute chimney, a carriage house out back and artful cutouts in the stucco. Jack had a soft spot for Abreu’s work. Growing up in Fort Lauderdale, he learned to swim in the Abreu-designed Casino Pool that was razed in ’66. As a banker, he did business in the Abreu-designed courthouse that came down in ’56. The Spanish gables and archways that defined Abreu’s work were what Jack had identified his whole life as home.

No doubt the mustard-colored bungalow was charming, but it was also tiny: two bedrooms and one bath in 1,558 square feet.

“The fact that my wife and I could do that for 30 years without getting a divorce is a miracle,” Jack jokes. “If we had kids, that would have been just about impossible.”

Jack and Diane are retired now, so they put their home up for sale late last year. The realtor, Jeff Greenberg, advertised its special charm in all caps: “ONE OF THE BEST EXAMPLES OF A TRUE ORIGINAL MEDITERRANEAN REVIVAL STYLE HOME…”

But Greenberg says he knew it was unlikely the home would be preserved. “Unfortunately,” Greenberg says, “it was worth way more dead than alive.”

He figured it would join many of the historic homes in Fort Lauderdale. Some had been bulldozed in the great building boom of the last decade. And now that the city is having a new growth spurt, old houses in Rio Vista, Victoria Park, Coral Ridge, and elsewhere are being replaced by townhomes and spec houses. This second boom has gotten so big that major developers have constructed mid-rise apartment buildings along Federal Highway and Sunrise Boulevard, ringing historic neighborhoods like medieval walled cities.

Such a thing would be unheard of in towns like Delray, Palm Beach or West Palm, where historic homes often can’t be demolished unless they’ve become unsafe. Fort Lauderdale, though, has lax rules. Only one residential neighborhood has been declared historic – Sailboat Bend – and even there the city has allowed historic structures to be torn down. A homeowner can ask the city to declare a structure historic, but doing so would subject the house to restrictions on improvements, which would likely be a big hit to the property values. That means few people go through the process, and historic homes can be torn down with little consideration about whether they should be saved.

In July, the little mustard-colored bungalow designed by Frances Abreu and loved for three decades by the Brewers sold for $640,000 to retired lawyer Jim Blosser. Shortly after, Blosser hired a company to 
flatten it.

Before you go thinking Blosser is the bad guy here, know this: He insists he did what he could to preserve the home. He hired architects to study building an addition, and they told him the structure was too unstable to support it. He looked into relocating it, but it was too fragile to survive the move.

“The short answer is that the house was worn out. It had just gone beyond its natural life,” Blosser explains. He says he’d rather see historic homes saved, but this time it just wasn’t possible. “Do we wish we had other options? Absolutely yes.”

Blosser used to work for H. Wayne Huizenga and later founded the powerhouse firm Blosser and Sayfie. He and his wife Nancy bought the property to build their retirement home. They’re downsizing from the 4,744-square-foot house they own a few blocks away. He says they’ve asked an architect for a design that fits the neighborhood.

Before the wrecking crew began its work, Blosser gave Diane Brewer permission to take out old light fixtures and remove the front door.

“It’s just sad that the dirt below your home is worth more than the house,” Jack says, from his new home in the Apalachicola historic district.

It might be easy in this point of the story to figure Jack and Diane would have wanted the government to step in and forbid their old home from being torn down. Not so.

“I’m a very strong believer in personal property rights,” Jack says adamantly. “I didn’t want to see that house torn down, but I don’t believe the government should tell someone what they can and can’t do with their property.”

Boca’s History Survives, But Not Because of Regulation

Back then she was neighbors with Theodore and Harriet Luff, a couple who had built a home in the 1920s at 390 E. Palmetto Park Road. They used coral rock to construct the craftsman-style house, making it as sturdy as a fortress.

Owens is 68 and retired from her work in quality control and inventory. Now, she spends her days trying to hold on to the Luff home and others like it. She sits on the city’s Historic Board, but she admits it has little teeth. “Even if you live in a historic district, we can’t tell you what to do,” Owens said. “We can make recommendations on what we would like to see, but you can do pretty much whatever you want.”

Instead, it’s the people of Boca who have assured the survival of historic homes. To this day, only a few notable homes have been flattened, and those were structures in the Pearl City neighborhood deemed too unsafe to be occupied. The historic homes designed by Addison Mizner that helped define an entire architectural genre – they largely remain, preserved and as pretty as when the first pioneers bought them.

The future of the Luff house, however, is uncertain. It sits outside the city’s designated historic districts, meaning the owner could pretty much tear it down anytime. Owens figures that time might be soon.

The current owner, part-time Boca resident Rocco Abessinio, made a billion dollars back in the 1990s and early 2000s, by giving people with bad credit high-interest credit cards. These days, he has diversified into office buildings, housing for college students, and even a company that makes pancake batter.

Also? Abessinio invests in real estate in Boca Raton.

It’s hard to say how much Abessinio owns here, because he buys properties using corporations set up for each purchase. But his property holdings in Boca include that coral-built home the Luffs built on Palmetto Park Road.

Abessinio didn’t return messages to his office asking about the home, but his acquisitions manager, Carl Kruelle, said, “You know, I’m not sure about that house. Do we own it?” When told that county records indicate Abessinio’s company does own it, he said: “Is Palmetto the road that runs into Boca? Perpendicular to the ocean? Yeah, that does sound familiar.” Kruelle said he’d better have someone else speak about the property, but nobody called back.

The Luff house is surrounded now by new development, and Owens figures it won’t be long until Abessinio wants to replace it. Or sells it to someone who does.

“These out-of-town investors, they never want what’s good for the city,” Owens says. “All they can see is profits. It’s very upsetting to us to see what’s going on.”

It’s easy to imagine what Abessinio might say in response. He bought a piece of valuable land, and maybe he has the right to do what he wants with it.

Owens and her fellow pioneers might have been here first, but maybe the Boca of tomorrow will be controlled by the Rocco Abessinios of the world.

And maybe you’ll think it’s better.

A Dent in Delray’s Historic Preservation Armor

Andrew “Avi” Greenbaum looks tired. And frankly, he’s sick of defending himself. For months now, he says people have been calling him a liar, that he’s got a devious plan he has yet to be revealed. It’s just not true, he explains one more time.

He’s sitting at a conference table in what used to be a sun porch of a historic home just off Delray Beach’s Swinton Avenue. The 1,100-square-foot craftsman style bungalow has been converted into a headquarters for Greenbaum’s company, Hudson Holdings. A long row of shared desks is bustling with activity.

The home is one of several historic structures Greenbaum’s company bought in downtown Delray. The buildings include the Sundy House, home to the city’s first mayor and now one of the finest restaurants around. It’s getting an interior renovation this year, Greenbaum says.

The plan is to move most of the buildings nearby and build a hotel, offices and retail space worth “well north” of $100 million, he says.

Preserving the buildings is something Greenbaum says is in his blood. He grew up in a 150-year-old home in Lawrence, N.Y., that used to be a German consulate. After his family moved out, the owners razed it, and he says he took it as a lesson that the past ought to be preserved.

In June, Greenbaum asked the City Commission to lift some of its stringent rules limiting new development in the historic district. Mayor Cary Glickstein, a developer and lawyer, was against it. He worried that other developers would have the same idea and slowly replace the historic district with new construction.

“Cities can very quickly lose their identities,” Glickstein says. “They will carve out a part here and a part there, and someday we’ll look around and realize there are no historic parts left.”

Delray is in the midst of a new building boom that includes large scale developments like Atlantic Crossing, which is breaking ground this year just east of the downtown historic district; it includes 160,000 square feet of offices and shops, and 442 condos and apartments. Farmland in west Delray is also disappearing to development, like the houses GL Homes got permission to construct on land formerly held as an agriculture reserve.

While Greenbaum wasn’t able to convince the mayor of his plan, he was able to convince someone who’s perhaps even more influential, Virginia Snyder. She’s a private investigator who has worked on a hundred murder cases and helped keep six men from the electric chair. She might be 94 now, but she’s tack-sharp – as she says, “I feel like I’m 
45 mentally.”

Snyder once owned several of the historic buildings targeted by the proposal, and she lives a few blocks away. Few people fight harder to maintain the historic charm of Delray. After Greenbaum’s company proposed its development, Snyder ran background checks on Greenbaum and his partners. She met with them and was swayed. “It’s not easy to convince me,” she says. “But I believe in what they’re doing. They’re trying to do the right thing.”

In June, the City Commission outvoted the mayor and agreed to change the rules about development in the historic district. Greenbaum must now submit detailed plans for final approval.

It’s no guarantee they will be approved. Amy Alvarez, the city’s lead preservation planner, says it’s her job to be sure all development in the historic district fits with the surrounding character.

“Change is going to happen,” Alvarez says. “But any change that happens needs to be appropriate change.”

That right there is what all this historic preservation hinges on. It all depends on how you define appropriate.