Miami Beach

Messed-up mansion? Real Housewives star shows home to reporters to prove it should be torn down

 

cveiga@MiamiHerald.com

There was a time that the estate at 42 Star Island was a grand structure perched on the edge of Biscayne Bay.

Original architecture and design plans show that every detail, from the Cuban tile roof, to the elegant inlays, were all carefully picked.

But 88 years later, the home’s new owners don’t even consider the floors fit for their pooch to walk across.

Leonard and Lisa Hochstein — he, a plastic surgeon known as “The Boob God,” and she, a cast member of Bravo’s The Real Housewives of Miami — bought the mansion at a foreclosure auction in late 2012. It has been at the center of a dispute with preservationists almost since then.

Originally hushed about the bitter fight, which has pitted historic preservation against private property rights, the couple is now courting the media to explain why they think the home isn’t worth saving. On Sunday, they opened the home for the first time to reporters.

“We bought this house with the intention of building our dream home. If we knew this was going to happen, we would have never purchased this home,” Lisa Hochstein said.

An engineer’s report submitted by the Hochsteins to the city of Miami Beach says the home is sinking, that it’s 30 inches below the flood plain and that the supports keeping the balconies up are so rusted that they could collapse. Preservationists, and even city staff, have questioned the accuracy of the report.

The Hochsteins want to tear down the home and replace it with a new 14,000 square-foot mansion, complete with a wine cellar and five-car garage. Their plan has been put on hold as the city of Miami Beach considers a competing application — filed against their will by the Miami Design Preservation League — that would save the home from demolition by declaring it historic.

Visible from the busy MacArthur Causeway, the white mansion with arched windows and grand columns was designed by Florida’s first registered architect, Walter DeGarmo. It was built in 1925 for J.W. Popham, an insurance executive.

With eight bedrooms and seven bathrooms, the home was built just one-room deep in a “railroad” fashion, meaning there were no hallways and you would have to walk through one room to get to another. Now, a previously outdoor corridor has been enclosed to provide a more private way to move around the home.

What drew the Hochsteins to Star Island was the size of the lots on the exclusive enclave, just across from the Port of Miami.

“One of the things that Lisa and I are looking forward to is starting a family,” said Leonard Hochstein, 46. “I kind of envision myself throwing a football with my son or daughter, or playing soccer.”

Today, the backyard is overrun with knee-high grass, and the swimming pool water is forest green and swarming with little bugs that dart through the swampy stew. A fountain in the middle of the property is empty and missing a statue that once topped it off.

Leonard Hochstein pointed to cracks running up and down the outside walls.

“This is all kind of patching jobs,” he said. “And it’s even cracked through that. There’s absolutely nothing holding this home together.”

Remnants of the previous owners’ lives are everywhere. Jeannette Branam — grandmother of Jake Branam, the boat captain who was murdered along with his wife and crew aboard their charter boat, the Joe Cool — lived in the home for 40 years until losing it to foreclosure. They moved out only months ago.

In the kitchen, random clutter — an old fast food cup, an unopened Presidente beer — is scattered over the countertops. An unpacked suitcase lays open in an upstairs bedroom. Yellowed curtains hang. A stuffed Disney toy sits in the corner of another room, along with a roller skate and some markers.

“Kind of looks like a scene from a haunted movie, all of the old children’s toys over there,” Lisa Hochstein said.

When it rains, water accumulates in the downstairs living room, Leonard Hochstein said. An engineering report details years of water intrusion into the structure, a rotten wooden roof and a moldy air conditioning system.

And then there are the roaches.

Walking through an upstairs bathroom, Lisa Hochstein looked down at Leo, the couple’s fluffy Pomeranian, as he pranced across the floor.

“There’s lots of little cockroaches all over,” she said. “Leo, I don’t think I even want you on the floor. Come here.”

But the biggest problems are unseen, said Leonard Hochstein. According to the report the couple’s engineer turned into the city, the home’s life expectancy was only about 40 years, and it should have toppled decades ago.

Preservationists have taken issue with the report, and even city employees tasked with reviewing the Hochsteins’ plans for demolition have appeared incredulous as to the findings.

From a staff report: “Staff remains confident that the structure could be retained and structurally restored, if desired.”

Ira Giller is a member of Miami Beach’s Historic Preservation Board and a professional architect. He recently toured the home.

“To my trained professional eye...I didn’t find the structure of the house to be in terribly poor shape. I didn’t find it to be irreparable. I didn’t see significant evidence of significant structural deterioration,” Giller said at a recent board meeting

After several delays, Miami Beach’s Design Review Board is set to consider the Hochstein’s petition for demolition on March 5. The application for historic designation is still in the beginning stages. Whichever side gets its application approved first, wins. The Hochsteins are hopeful.

“This is still the greatest city to live in. ... I think in the end, it will happen,” Leonard Hochstein said.

Follow @Cveiga on Twitter.

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