42 Star Island

The Tale of the Boob God, his Real Miami Housewife, A New York Artist, Preservationists and the Faded 1926 Grande Dame in the Middle.

What is turning out to be a Lifetime Movie of the week style saga, is the controversial story of 42 Star Island, a million dollar property on Miami Beach. Headlining are the would-be villains – a plastic surgeon known as the Boob God and his sexy TV star wife – who are pitted against the powerful, battle-scarred Art Deco preservationists who are trying to save the day (or in this case, the mansion). Enter the mysterious hero, a Miami-born artist from New York also determined to save the day. And at the center of it all is the glorious, but faded Grande Dame that has seen better days.

But back to reality.

The couple, the aforementioned plastic surgeon Leonard Hochstein and his wife Lisa, a Reality TV Housewife of Miami have been embroiled in a knock down drag out fight with local preservationists over the couples intent to demolish an 88-year-old Star Island Mansion that they bought under foreclosure for $7.6 million last year. The two have brought in Miami architect Kobi Karp to turn the faded Mediterranean revival manse into their dream home complete with ionic columns, parapets, balustrades and garland moldings.

But, on Tuesday Preservationists scored a victory when the Miami Beach Design Review Board deferred approval of the plans for the 20,000-square foot Star Island Mansion until their next meeting in March. This gives The Miami Beach Historic Preservation Board the option to save the 1925 Walter DeGarmo designed mansion when they consider the pending application for historic designation at their meeting on February 12.

Little did the Hochstein’s know, that by buying this home and submitting plans to tear it down, it would incite a preservation hurricane that would bring on national attention, internet petitions and the ire of beach residents. Enter Bryan Mike Latham,  a Miami-raised, 37 year-old artist, who spends his time traveling between New York, Atlanta and Zurich. Latham remembers marveling over the house as a child when his grandfather would take him to watch the cruise ships setting sail at the Port of Miami.

“That house has been one of my particular favorites ever since I was a kid,’’ said Latham, who graduated from Ransom Everglades School in Coconut Grove. “I can’t imagine anyone wanting to tear that down.’’

Sentimentality made Latham come up with a solution that would please both sides. He offered to buy the Star Island property, crumbling walls and all.

“No Go”, say the Hochsteins, the mansion is not for sale.

Latham offered to pay $7.6 million, the exact price the Hochsteins paid for the property, but was turned down flat.

“This isn’t about money,” said Hochstein,  “This is about a family home.”

Latham, who is currently renovating a neglected 19th century home known as The Castle in Atlanta, wants to do the same thing with this one.

But Latham has not given up hope. He is waiting to see what happens on February 12.

“I am completely undeterred,’’ he wrote in an email to the Miami Herald. “I can help him find a more suitable property on Star Island to demolish or do as he pleases.’

So, problem solved? An angel investor waiting in the wings to bail out the Hochsteins if the review board fails to pass their plans? A great parachute if you need it. But, unfortunately for the Hochsteins and their dream of a new family home, things just deteriorated from there. Once plans were submitted, a member of the Miami Design Preservation League filed a request to designate the house as historic. The designation would help protect the house from demolition.  As usual as it is for MDPL to step in to save an Art Deco building, it is very unusual that they are fighting to preserve a private home even though they have been talking about doing so for years. Tax incentives put in place in 2002 meant to encourage homeowners to ask for historic designation and preserve their houses are no longer effective. In recent years, Miami Beach has attracted wealthy home owners who are wanting to build huge houses. But, in this case, preservation league members felt compelled to stop the expected demolition.

“We have reached a tipping point on Miami Beach where we are losing entirely too many pre-1942 single-family homes,” said William H. Cary, the assistant planning director for Miami Beach and the former preservation director for the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. “It appears it could begin to have a dramatic impact in changing the character of Miami Beach’s residential areas.”

In the meantime, this incident has set Miami Beach City Commissioners to debate whether new rules should be put in place to prohibit involuntary designations on single-family homes or to strengthen historic preservation laws and allow residential historic districts.

Charlie Urstadt, Chairman of the Miami Design Preservation League fired off a letter to the Mayor and Commissioners decrying the lack of protection on Pre-1942 Miami Beach Homes. (See below) and the epidemic of wasteful destruction. According to the  Planning Department,  24 Miami Beach homes were totally demolished in 2012 compared to 13 from 2007 to 2011. Currently, the Design Review Board can’t block a permit to demolish a home unless it has been declared historic; it can only approve the design.

Last week, Preservationists fired off another shot by hiring local attorney Kent Harrison Robbins to represent them.

In the meantime, the Hochsteins have been mounting their own campaign. Dr Hochstein began talking to his fellow Star island neighbors and according to an article in the NY Times, 22 of the 32 homeowners on the island had no objection to him raising the home. He has also been looking at alternatives as to whether part of the original home can be saved. He even brought in an engineer, who went over the house and declared it uninhabitable. The existing square footage sits below the flood plain has structural problems and does not comply with current hurricane regulations. Added to that, it still  has its original cloth wiring, no central air-conditioning and no plumbing on the second floor.

“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.”

But the MDPL have brought in structural engineer Herbert Gopman to go through the home and determine if the structural integrity of the house at 42 Star Island is in fact compromised. Gopman has said that engineers should have considered the masonry of the building when determining whether it is structurally sound, but did not. He told The Miami Herald that he would need to more closely examine the home, but that it may be salvageable.

In the meantime, an online petition has been circulating that currently has over a 350 signatures. It was started by long-time beach resident and MDPL member Daniel Ciraldo. Sign the petition here:

So, both sides wait to see what the city’s Historic Preservation Board will do next Tuesday. Will they save the home by declaring it historic? Or will they allow the Hochsteins to go forward? What is very clear, is that which ever way the board decides to rule, it will set prescedent for future homeowners on Miami Beach.

But, Hochstein is not concerned with the future of any other homes, but his own.

“This is not Vizcaya,” he said, “This is a residential home. It is a private home, a huge difference.” He added, “If this home was a historic home, I wouldn’t have bought it.”

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