Preservationists may have gotten a boost in their fight to save an 88-year-old Miami Beach mansion — thanks to timing and poor attendance.
Dr. Leonard Hochstein and his wife, Lisa — he, a plastic surgeon known as “the Boob God,” and she, a cast member of Bravo’s Real Housewives of Miami — have asked Miami Beach for permission to tear down the home they recently bought at 42 Star Island Drive. The city’s Design Review Board was set Tuesday to vote on the couples’ plan to build a 20,000-square foot mansion in its place.
But only four of the seven board members showed up at Tuesday’s meeting, meaning that the Hochsteins would have needed a unanimous vote to bring in bulldozers.
Instead, the couples’ attorney, Michael Larkin, asked the board to defer a decision until next month’s meeting.
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The timing of the deferral is important, say preservationists.
On Feb. 12, the city’s Historic Preservation Board is set to consider an application — made against the owners’ will — to save the home from wrecking balls by declaring it historic. Should the preservation board decide to move forward with the application, which was filed by the Miami Design Preservation League, it will put a “moratorium” on the Hochsteins’ plans for demolition, said Kent Harrison Robbins, an attorney working pro-bono for preservationists.
Larkin declined to comment Tuesday.
“I think it’s very sad that it’s come to this,” Leonard Hochstein told reporters Tuesday after the hearing.
The home at the center of the controversy was built in 1925 by respected Miami architect Walter DeGarmo. It’s an eight bedroom, seven bathroom estate that overlooks Biscayne Bay from a corner of the exclusive Star Island.
The Hochsteins say it’s decrepit. It’s only 20-feet deep and has no hallways — the only way to move through the house is by passing through each room. The couple wants to tear it down and build what they have described as their dream home, complete with a wine cellar , five-car garage and guest house.
“When you look at the house, it’s a hazard,” Leonard Hochstein said. “This house is not structurally sound.”
Preservationists disagree. They have enlisted structural engineer Herbert Gopman, who has been brought in for second opinions about other old structures facing destruction on the Beach. Gopman said engineers should have considered the masonry of the building when determining whether it is structurally sound, but didn’t. He told The Miami Herald on Tuesday that he would need to more closely examine the home, but that it may be salvageable.
While preservationists take on the star couple, the city is weighing in on the issue that is so vexing to Hochsteins right now: involuntary historic designation of private homes.
Beach Commissioner Jonah Wolfson recently suggested banning the abilty to designate a home as historic against the homeowners’ will. But that suggestion still needs to be debated by the City Commission’s Land Use and Development Committee and the full City Commission, and may ultimately require voter approval. So the measure may be of no help to the Hochsteins.
Before the Hochsteins acquired the property, it was owned for more than 30 years by Jeannette Branam. She is the grandmother of Jake Branam, the boat captain who was murdered along with his wife and crew aboard their charter boat, the Joe Cool.
Jeannette Branam fell behind on her mortgage after her manufacturing business went under, according to a bankruptcy filing. The Hochsteins bought the bank note for the home, though it’s not entirely clear how, according to David Philips, who represented Branam in an unsuccessful legal battle to keep the home.
With the bank note in hand, the Hochsteins foreclosed on Branam, who according to public records is 79 years old. The home went to auction, and the Hochsteins bought it for $7.6 million, according to Leonard Hochstein.
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