On March 12, the Palm Beach Post published a story by local freelance writer Mike Diamond with the following headline: “Without permit, residents demolish historic Delray home, face steep fines.”
Six paragraphs into the story, it’s revealed that the historic home in question, built in 1955 at 212 Seabreeze Avenue in Delray Beach on Florida’s southeast coast, was designed by Paul Rudolph and listed on the city’s local register of historic places in 2005. News of the near-total demolition or even whispers of razing the home, the Biggs Residence, came as a shock to the Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation, a New York City-based nonprofit that naturally possesses a fine-tuned sonar that goes into distress mode when works by the celebrated modernist architect are threatened. (Sadly, an all-too-common occurrence as of late.) The teardown, which city officials say was not approved (more on that later), happened in August of last year.
Kelvin Dickinson, president and CEO of the Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation, was blindsided.
“Out of the blue, I get a email alert and this article comes up,” Dickinson told AN. “And there’s a picture of the house with just a pair of steel columns. I didn’t believe at first that it was the same house.”
Dickinson noted that the Sarasota Architectural Foundation, an education- and advocacy-centered nonprofit dedicated to the Sarasota School of Architecture (or “Sarasota Modern”), also had no indication of what was coming. “Because the house is in Delray Beach, on the other side of the state, they had no idea,” he said.
The Sarasota School is a breezy-yet-innovative post-war regional architectural movement and design philosophy (a more climate-responsive, Florida-specific variation of the International Style) developed in the 1940s by Paul Twitchell and Rudolph, who was freshly out of the Harvard Graduate School of Design where he studied under Walter Gropius. Sarasota Modern is, of course, most prevalent in and around the city of Sarasota, on Florida’s Gulf Coast, although a modest handful of Rudolph-designed homes born from the movement can be found elsewhere throughout the state, including the Biggs Residence in Delray Beach, a small city located between Boca Raton and West Palm Beach. Originally 1,600-square-feet, the two-bedroom elevated home, which marked a departure from Rudolph’s earlier Sarasota School work with Twitchell, was commissioned by Delaware-born art collector and philanthropist Sewell C. Biggs, who lived in the home until 1961.
Now, this rare Atlantic Coast Rudolph-designed home is gone. But its current owners might argue otherwise.
Owners Michael and Nina Marco, a real estate developer and designer, respectively, have long stressed their serious commitment to restoring the Biggs Residence so that it is more aligned with Rudolph’s original vision. (The rectilinear abode, lifted above the ground by exposed steel columns, was subject to multiple alterations and non-historic additions over the decades beginning in the early 1980s). After purchasing the property in February 2018 for $1.395 million, the Marcos went public with their respectful proposed plans. They even traveled to New York and met with Dickinson and Ernst Wagner, Rudolph’s longtime friend and business partner who serves as executor of the Rudolph estate and founder of both the Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation and the Paul Rudolph Foundation, along with others to discuss the project in detail. Everything was copasetic, highly transparent, and, as noted by Dickinson: “I was very happy to see that they were following the Secretary of Interior’s guidelines for restoration.”
“We were pleased with their proposal and considered this project to be in the ‘safe’ category,” wrote the Foundation in an update shared earlier this week. “We didn’t think anything of it at the time, but this would be the last communication we had with them.”
Right down to the frame
In the view of the Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation, carefully renovating, removing non-historic additions, and building a “discrete” new addition for a Rudolph-designed home is one thing; demolishing the structure down to its metal frame and then faithfully reconstructing it to Rudolph’s specifications, which the Marcos now say is their intention, is another. And it isn’t, per the Foundation, preservation. As elaborated by Dickinson, rebuilding the house to its exact 1955 state, while commendable, isn’t exactly feasible due to 21st-century building code requirements for insulation, glazing, flood protection, and on.
So how did the restoration of the Biggs House result in only the structure’s frame being left intact when such a drastic move was never allegedly presented to the Foundation—or to the city—as part of the plan?
As reported by last month’s Palm Beach Post article, Michael Marco explained to a magistrate at a city hearing that the original structure was razed after initial work revealed it was in far worse condition than originally anticipated. Demolition and rebuilding work commenced last year until activity at the site was halted by the city because Marcos had never obtained a demolition permit from the Delray Reach Historical Preservation Board.
Per the Post, the couple faced considerable fines for “committing an ‘irreversible’ violation of the city’s building code” and must obtain an an-after-the-fact demolition permit by April 24. That permit has since been filed. The Marcos had obtained permission to remove the additions following a July 2018 filing for a Certificate of Appropriateness (COA) for Demolition of Two Non-Contributing Additions to the Original Home; the addition demolitions were carried out later that year. However, a permit to demolish, which the city defines as removing 25 percent or more of an existing building, the original structure was not secured.
Michael Weiner, an attorney for the Marcos, argued at the hearing that because the original home was in such poor condition, the Historic Preservation Board should have realized that approving renovations/addition demolitions also meant approving a potential demolition of the original home. In response, an attorney for the city claimed that when the Marcos discovered that the Biggs Residence was in a beyond-repair state of deterioration they should have obtained the proper permit instead of beginning the teardown.
“Far reaching consequences”
Earlier this week, the Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation shared the following statement from the City of Delray Beach, provided by the principal planner in the city’s historic preservation department:
Delray Beach values and protects its historic buildings. The city’s Historic Preservation staff work hand-in-hand with property owners, architects, and builders to guide them through the approval process and serve as a resource when restoring or renovating historic buildings and sites.
The site at 212 Seabreeze Avenue, known as the Sewell C. Biggs House, was designed in 1955 by internationally renowned architect Paul Rudolph, who was part of the Sarasota School of Architecture and later Chairman of the School of Architecture at Yale University. The Sewell C. Biggs House is a historic structure listed on the Delray Beach Local Register of Historic Places.
During August 2020, the Sewell C. Biggs House was demolished down to its metal frame. This action was not approved by the city and is a stark contrast to the original plan presented to and approved by the city’s Historic Preservation Board, which emphasized a desire to respectfully rehabilitate and restore Paul Rudolph’s original building with minimal changes.
The decision not to inform the city effectively denied staff the ability to determine if the demolition was warranted, and the opportunity to inspect the site to assess how much of the original, historically significant, structure could have been saved.
The demolition of this unique site has far reaching consequences for the legacy of Paul Rudolph, the Sarasota School of Architecture, the much-prized historical character of the city, and the neighbors who now have to contend with prolonged construction.
Moving forward, the city’s goal is to work with the owners and the Historic Preservation Board to bring this historically significant building back to a state of historical integrity, as much as may be possible. The city has hired an architect with expertise in historic buildings to provide guidance to staff and help establish a path forward for the owners.
In addition to the statement, the city also shared with the Foundation an exhaustive 17-page report written by Richard Heisenbottle, an architect based in Coral Gables hired by the city to conduct an independent review of the project. In the report, Heisenbottle stated that . . . “the owner and his general contractor have gone well beyond what was authorized in the COA and what was authorized on the approved Building Department Permit Plans.”
The Foundation shared its reactions to the report’s various findings in its recent update. One particular conclusion made by Heisenbottle prompted a strong contrary reaction: “ . . . properly executed rehabilitation and partial reconstruction can continue to be listed as a historic resource on the Delray Beach Local Register of Historic Places.”
The Foundation argues that in its experience, “no reconstruction of a building can authentically match the original” due to “several real and intractable phenomena of the construction process,” which it goes on to detail.
“Despite recent promises that the house will be reconstructed, we consider the home to be demolished and any future construction—unless a complete restoration—will not be a Rudolph project as he conceived it, and the historic designation should be revoked,” elaborated Dickinson in an April 1 statement released by the Foundation.
While the original 1955 Biggs Residence is gone save for its frame, lingering questions from Dickinson and the Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation remain: What were the owners’ intentions when they sought the review of the proposed changes from the Foundation in 2018, and why did they not seek further counsel when circumstances at the construction site changed? What steps did the owners take to seek advice from preservation experts when it appeared that the home was in such condition that it warranted a near-demolition? And why did members of the project construction team, including the architect and building contractor hired by the owners, not pause work when said work exceeded what was permitted by the city? How did this happen?