On Miami Beachs super-exclusive Star Island, a Real Housewife of Miami and her plastic-surgeon husband want to build a palatial mansion so lavish it might make a Roman emperor blush.
Only a splendid, if possibly rundown, Mediterranean manse by one of Miamis great early architects stands in the way.
Now Dr. Leonard and Lisa Hochsteins plans to tear down the 1925 house, designed by Walter DeGarmo, is blowing up into the latest row over the fate of a historic building in preservation-minded Miami Beach.
The imbroglio has put a spotlight on what critics say is a gaping hole in the Beachs otherwise stringent preservation ordinance: Unlike other local cities with lots of historic and architecturally distinguished homes, including Coral Gables, the Beach lacks the power to designate an individual residence historic without its owners consent.
Beach residents and preservationists have launched a last-gasp petition drive to save the DeGarmo house, an iconic, whitewashed presence at 42 Star Island Dr. on the islands southeast corner thats visible from the MacArthur Causeway. People from as far away as Chicago have signed the petition.
Design and real-estate bloggers, meanwhile, have had a field day ridiculing what one, Curbed Miamis Sean McCaughan, called the Hochsteins proposed real elephant of a house. Dr. Hochstein in turn calls the criticism nasty and offensive.
The bloggers are also going after the Hochsteins current Sunset Island No. 1 abode, now up for sale for upward of $10 million a faux-Mediterranean custom job that Curbed Miami called absolutely absurd and The Real Estalker derided as gaudy, meretricious and the house that boobs built.
I think its a complete disregard for the historic house, McCaughan said in an interview of the Hochsteins proposed new home. Its obviously a huge slap in the face to historic preservation in Miami Beach.
Leonard Hochstein said in an interview that he and his wife had hoped to renovate the DeGarmo house, which they bought in a foreclosure auction for $7.6 million. The previous owner, since 1978, was Jeannette Branam, whose grandson was murdered along with his wife in the so-called Joe Cool boat hijacking off Florida in 2007. Branam was unsuccessful in fending off the foreclosure.
Hochstein said the house proved to be structurally unsound and unsafe because it sits well below the flood elevation level for the island.
He said he found bloggers snide references to his wifes role in the Real Housewives of Miami reality cable-TV show and the criticism of his home design preferences misplaced, insisting the bayfront facade of the new Star Island house would not be appreciably different from the DeGarmo house from a distance.
I cant make everybody happy, he said. This is the United States, where were allowed, within reason, to build to your taste. If they dont like it, they dont have to come as a guest.
On Tuesday, the blueprints for the new Star Island house and the demolition request go to the citys Design Review Board, which approves new construction. Because the house is not designated historic, the citys famously strict preservation board has no say in the matter.
But city planners, in a report to the design review board, called the DeGarmo house exceptional and questioned the Hochstein engineers claim that the house is beyond repair, noting that he apparently conducted no testing to prove it. The report says the condition of the house appears quite typical of homes from the period before renovation.
The city analysis of the plan also concludes the new house and a separate garage and guest house would be plunked down on the pie-slice-shaped lot with no design relationship or consideration to each other, adjacent residences, or the unique geometry of the property. The planners urged the board to postpone consideration of the application and suggested the architect, Kobi Karp, go back to the drawing board.
According to CurbedMiamis analysis of Karps plan, the Classically-inspired home will be festooned with double-height columns, parapets, balustrades, heavy iron gates, and garland moldings above the windows. It has a five car garage with guest apartment, a separate two-story guest house, a large pool, a motor court, a home theater, a gym, a game room, a massage room, an office, a kitchen island the size of a medium-sized boat, a chandelier in the foyer bigger than some cars, twin grand staircases, and six bedrooms in the main house.
DeGarmo, the existing homes architect, was a pioneer in the Mediterranean Revival style in Miami in the 1920s and widely regarded as one of the best from that period.
He designed numerous prominent buildings and homes in the Beach, including the Miami Beach Community Church on Lincoln Road Mall, as well as the Villa Woodbine home and the Coconut Grove Womens Club, both of which are designated historic by the city of Miami. The womens club is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Some DeGarmo houses are also protected in the Gables, a city spokeswoman said.
Both Miami and the Gables, like many historically-minded municipalities, give their preservation boards the power to legally protect architecturally distinguished or historic homes without owner consent. Backers say its the best way to ensure preservation of historic neighborhoods.
The Gables board, in fact, recently made headlines when it designated a home historic after someone purchased it as a tear-down.
But preservationists say Beach elected officials have been unwilling over the years to beef up their ordinance to permit the preservation board to initiate the designation of individual homes, though some, especially on South Beach, may be included within protected historic districts.
One reason the DeGarmo house is getting so much attention is that applications for demolition of homes on the Beach has skyrocketed as the housing market recovers, endangering its rich trove of architecturally distinct homes from the 1920s to the 1950s.
This year, the city has received 24 applications for total demolition of homes, compared to three the year before, said Miami Design Preservation League chairman Charles Urstadt, citing a city report.
Urstadt, who like others blames a wave of speculation and house-flipping, signed the petition to save the DeGarmo house, devised by Beach entrepreneur and preservationist Daniel Ciraldo, and said its time for the city to do something.
We do have some historically significant homes left, but weve lost so many. Its a tough problem to address, but how are we going to combat this? Urstadt said.
Said Ciraldo: It may be too late to save this house. But we may be able to save some of the remaining houses before theyre all replaced with these out-of-character McMansions.