Fearing For History, Beach Preservationists Make Their Stand At A Star Island Mansion

Jan 16, 2013

ENDANGERED: Beautiful but beyond repair, its new owner says, this home at 42 Star Island Dr. is at the center of an unusual preservation debate.
Credit AlexShay.com

In an unusual case of pre-emptive historic designation, Miami Beach preservationists are trying to protect a decrepit Star Island mansion from being torn down by its new owner.

That would be plastic surgeon Leonard Hochstein, who bought the waterfront place at 42 Star Island Drive for $7.6 million and then found it too far gone to be renovated.

As the New York Times reports today, Hochstein and his wife plan to replace the 1925 Walter DeGarmo-designed mansion with a brand new, 20,000-square-foot home.

Hochstein's plans find the city nearing panic over the disappearance of pre-1942 homes built in the local classical style. Now, a member of the Miami Beach Design Preservation League has filed papers to have the property designated "historic," which would protect it from demolition.

Usually, it's the homeowner who wants the historic designation, since it comes with a tax break to encourage renovation. But, this time, the homeowner is the resentful target of a preservation campaign, he told the Times, over a house that doesn’t deserve it:

“The house is not habitable, and renovating it, while keeping the shell, is also not possible,” Dr. Hochstein said. “It’s not a home that can be preserved.”

He added, “If this home was a historic home, I wouldn’t have bought it. To go and try to do this after the fact, against my will, is really unsettling.”

The house, he said, sits well below the flood plain and has severe structural problems. It does not comply with strict hurricane regulations. It has cloth wiring, no air-conditioning and no plumbing on the second floor. And because it was built to maximize sea breezes, the house is long and narrow, with one room tumbling into the next.

Dr. Hochstein said he reached 22 of the 32 homeowners on the island, and none objected to the house’s demolition, considering its state of disrepair.

But the preservationists are not backing away. In fact, they are agitating for strengthened preservation laws that could slow the disappearance of those pre-World War II homes considered important to the local historic inventory.

Preservation is not a dirty word in Miami Beach, whose profile as a destination was raised considerably by its refusal to allow its Art Deco buildings to crumble and disappear. Still, the powerful community of builders and real estate agents is less enchanted with protecting desireable property from profitable development and that creates the political atmosphere in which city commissioners must make their preservation decisions.