The demolition of historic homes on South Beach has reached a climax, bringing with it attention and discussion as to what should—and should not—be protected.
42 Star Island Drive pre-demolition. Owners Lisa and Leonard Hochstein are replacing it with a house more than twice the size.
By the time this article is published, the 1925 house designed by Walter DeGarmo at 42 Star Island Drive—one of the most visible and architecturally noteworthy houses in Miami Beach—will have been demolished. Easily visible to anyone traveling westbound on the MacArthur Causeway, the historic home will have been razed and the entire city of Miami Beach will have watched it happen. Lisa and Leonard Hochstein of The Real Housewives of Miami fame are replacing it with a 20,000-square-foot house that is more than double the size, complete with home theater, commercial-size kitchen, and staff quarters, for their growing family. Demolition began in late March, when a crew (both TV and demolition) arrived and started on the garage.
Hochstein actions aside, Miami Beach has become known for its preservation efforts on structures ranging from hotels to apartments to prehistoric circles. Everything from the Art Deco District in South Beach, the Fontainebleau Miami Beach, or even the Australian pines of Pine Tree Drive (especially the pines) is protected by laws, statutes, the city’s Historic Preservation Board, and tax breaks for preservation-minded developers. The fact that Miami Beach has such a great collection of historic buildings and districts is a testament to its strong preservation ethos, and some would argue that preservation is part of Miami’s boom. “Historic preservation was definitely the catalyst for [Miami Beach’s] success,” says Herb Sosa, a member of Miami Beach’s Historic Preservation Board. “The sun and beach have always been here, but it took preservation—the protection and promotion of our unique buildings, homes, and neighborhoods—to make South Beach a textbook study in what happens when the preservation stars align.”
This as yet unprotected Star Island home, designed by August Geiger, was built in 1925 in the Mediterranean Revival style, and its exterior walls have the original rough stucco finish.
Where many of the city’s preservation laws end, however, are single-family neighborhoods. A homeowner can’t be stopped from demolition based on the age of his or her house, and in a town flush with new wealth, tax breaks don’t seem to be the preservation incentive they used to be. The city is considering new laws meant to encourage homeowners to seek historic designation and limit the lot coverages of new houses that replace older, possibly historic, ones. Limiting the sizes would presumably deter owners from demolishing smaller structures to replace them with much larger ones. But the details of the new law, puzzlingly, might have the opposite effect by allowing larger houses in certain situations where they wouldn’t have been allowed before.
The city has seen a spike in the loss of architecturally significant single-family houses of a certain age in recent years. Notable examples include modernist Jorge Arango’s Villa May on North Bay Road and a red brick Federal-style mansion by the famed Maurice Fatio, also on North Bay Road. (Arango also established the Arango Design Store, a South Florida institution.) Other noteworthy but unprotected houses have come under threat but remain standing. The longtime Miami Beach home of Al Capone, on Palm Island, is currently for sale and located on land far more valuable, monetarily, than the structure itself. The house is relatively small and simple compared to the baronial mansion that might replace it.
Al Capone’s longtime Miami Beach home at 93 Palm Avenue.
According to a City Commission memo, owners made demolition requests for at least 25 “pre-1942 architecturally significant single-family homes” in 2013, and 20 in 2012, a skyrocketing figure considering there were never more than five proposals a year for the seven years prior. And in 2009, there were none. The economic recovery seems to have people thinking demolition as opposed to preservation.
In a twist of fate, the demolition of 42 Star Island Drive just may be the best thing to happen to Miami Beach’s single-family-home preservation movement. The house could be the martyr that galvanizes the city to action, led by preservationists and the Miami Design Preservation League, just as the almost mythical loss of the Senator Hotel in 1988 became the rallying cry that saved the rest of the Art Deco District. This momentum was summed up by Daniel Ciraldo of the MDPL when he told The Miami Herald, “We’re a small town and we have our symbols. And when certain symbols are lost, it kind of gets a community together and makes us think, What can we do to make sure this doesn’t happen again? Somebody’s got to do it. It’s important to our city.”
Whether because of the Hochsteins’ fame or the high profile that 42 Star Island already enjoyed due to its elaborate design and prominent location, something is afoot. After all, the threat of 42 Star Island’s demolition alone set off a legal battle between the Hochsteins and the MDPL that lasted longer than a year and resulted in national publicity, a six-month citywide moratorium on historic home demolitions, new legislation, and even a story line on The Real Housewives of Miami. It just might be the cause around which an invigorated historic preservation movement could rally.