By Jane Smith
Real estate developer Michael Marco is pouring millions of dollars into reconstructing a historic home on the barrier island in Delray Beach — a project that was delayed after he ran afoul of city regulations.
“I’m trying not to think about the lost time and increased cost,” he said in April at the historic house site at 212 Seabreeze Avenue that he plans to make his family home. The city shut down the renovation in August 2020 for not having a needed demolition permit and did not allow the work to restart until December 2021.
While the actual construction costs have more than doubled over earlier estimates, some preservationists say the city’s history is incurring a much dearer price. They say Marco — no matter how well-intentioned — is not so much preserving history as he is building a close replica of it.
For them, the history was lost in less than 24 hours in July 2020, when workers removed the glass panels and louvers of the mid-century modern house, leaving only a steel skeleton on the site. Marco did not get a demolition permit, which is required if more than 25% of a home is going to be removed.
The city shut down the construction site for almost 1½ years. In December, the Historic Preservation Board and the City Commission unanimously approved allowing Marco to proceed with his reconstruction of the Paul Rudolph-designed home, while also allowing it to stay on the city’s register of historic homes.
Marco apologized to the board for stripping the house to its skeleton without contacting the city. “We should have reviewed everything with the historic staff before it was done. That was our mistake, a huge mistake on my part,” he said.
Why it could be historic
Rudolph, a pioneer of the Sarasota School of Architecture, was acclaimed for his modernism and later became chairman of the Yale School of Architecture. Marco’s house was one of the few Rudolph designs built on Florida’s East Coast, with most being in the Sarasota and Bradenton area on the Gulf Coast.
The predominantly glass Delray Beach house — built in 1955 before air-conditioning was widely available — was done for Sewell C. Biggs, a Delaware native who collected American art.
Richard Heisenbottle, a historic preservation architect hired by the city to review the Biggs house situation, said it’s still possible for the house to be historic.
If the reconstruction follows the U.S. Secretary of Interior’s guidelines that call for photos and plans of the original design to be used in the redesign, then the reconstructed house can be considered historic, he told the board members.
“We have the documentation that is required by that standard,” Heisenbottle, from Coral Gables, said at the December meeting.
The city originally approved listing the house in its historic inventory in 2005 at the request of the owners at the time, Virginia and Erskine Courtenay. She loved the house because it gave her a feeling of being up in the trees, according to the documents prepared for that designation.
The historic-designation report described the Biggs house as “a significant example of the modernism which swept through the state in the years after World War II. It is an example of the work of a leading American architect, Paul Rudolph, whose testing ground was Florida.”
Why others say it can’t be
Not everyone agrees the Rudolph-designed home should remain on the city’s inventory of historic homes without an explanation.
“Things can be rebuilt, but it’s not a historic structure,” said John Miller, who has twice chaired the Historic Preservation Board. “Personally, I don’t think it can stay on the city’s list of historic places without an asterisk saying it was a historic structure and rebuilt in the Paul Rudolph style, with the mass of the home not the same.”
Miller, a Delray Beach native, is president of the Delray Beach Historical Society. He became a local history buff because his great-grandfather and grandfather were Delray Beach mayors.
The Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation no longer lists the Delray Beach house on its website. Its chief executive has said the new homeowners are assuming they know how Rudolph would react to today’s construction issues — something that’s not possible.
For that reason, the foundation’s website states: “The Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation will not support such a rebuilding as an authentic Rudolph design. …The original residence will remain ‘demolished’ in our project list.”
‘Labor of love’ for owner
Historic Preservation Board Chairman Ben Baffer asked Heisenbottle to write a letter to the Rudolph Foundation after the Biggs house is reconstructed, explaining why it should still be considered an authentic Rudolph-designed home. Heisenbottle agreed.
Construction workers have been able to reuse most of the steel beams by sanding them and painting them, a process that took months, Marco said.
His wife, Nina, found the original Rudolph house plans that called for the ground floor to be enclosed in glass.
They will add air-conditioning, but they will not tint the glass to reduce the heat from the Florida sun. Tinted glass was not part of the Rudolph design. The reconstructed house will be about 60% glass.
After the house is rebuilt to look like the original Rudolph design, Marco will apply to the city for property tax abatements for his historic property improvements for 10 years. Marco expects reconstructing the home will take another 12 to 18 months.
His hard costs for the reconstruction now exceed $2 million. In January 2021, GLM Builders estimated the reconstruction cost to be about $920,000.
His soft costs for attorneys, engineers, architects and other consultants are mounting. He even gave up his day job as a residential real estate developer to oversee the daily work at his Seabreeze property.
“It’s a labor of love,” Marco said. “That’s how it makes sense to me.”