A Tree, a House, a Sign

Destroying age and beauty on Miami Beach

By the time Colleen Martin got to the house, it was too late.

Driving across the 41st Street Causeway on April 25, Martin -- a Miami Beach attorney who relocated from Oklahoma six years ago -- couldn't believe her eyes. As a member of the city's historic preservation board, she helped draft an ordinance preserving homes just like the one on 3080 N. Bay Rd. In fact the 1928 Mediterranean Revival designed by C.G. Wilkinson was to be the first historic home given permanent protection under the ordinance, designed to prevent homes built before 1942 from falling to new development. But its owner, Franz Reuther, had different plans. The wealthy German had already torn down a house next door. The city denied him a demolition permit for this one, which featured sharp, handsome lines and an original Cuban tile roof.

Reuther, however, threw Miami Beach and its brand-new ordinance the finger. That Friday afternoon, Martin arrived too late on North Bay Road -- a bulldozer had already demolished the main part of the Mediterranean mansion.

"It was beautiful," Martin says now. "So majestic. It just had such a graceful presence where it stood." The day before, the empty house had been vandalized -- window screens removed and tossed across the yard, a sledgehammer used to obliterate architectural details like brass switch plates and ornate fireplaces.

As a former assistant district attorney with a perfect win record for jury trials, Martin had already donned boxing gloves to help Miami Beach fight to save the city's older homes. When she arrived at North Bay Road that afternoon, for example, she confronted the operator of the bulldozer and told him he didn't have a permit to tear the house down.

"How do you know I don't have a permit?" Martin says the man replied. When she identified herself, he agreed to stop, but asked Martin to move so he could swing the bulldozer around.

"I wasn't really in the way," she remembers, "but I said, 'Okay.' He went like he was going to back up and then he shifted into first gear, lurched forward, and took a big swing at the last wall and it collapsed. Then he stopped the dozer, got out and ran. He almost got hit by an oncoming car as he was peeling out."

In his haste, the bulldozing renegade neglected to shut the water off in the house, making the resulting pile of debris even messier. But for Martin things had actually become messy long before. It all started over a tree.

The house at 4890 Pine Tree Dr. that Martin shares with her husband, Daniel, is another Mediterranean Revival. The house had been vacant for seven years when the Martins bought it in January 1997. Chandeliers had been stolen, homeless had squatted there, and graffiti covered walls and bathrooms. "It was totally disgusting," Martin says, hip cocked like a model, blond hair pulled back in a ponytail. She and her husband embarked on a renovation campaign to bring the 3600-square-foot home, which sits on a canal, back to its original glory, slowly converting the long, narrow dwelling, built in 1934, from a crack house to their dream home. The cedar ceiling in the living room was stripped of paint and restored. The front door was refinished. Wood floors were resurfaced, tiles regrouted.

To the north of Martin's home sat an empty lot slated for development. In March 2000 the owner, Breakstone Homes, told Martin it would be tearing down a sprawling banyan tree on the property to make room for a 6000-square-foot home. The tree, Martin estimates, existed long before her house was built, probably dating back to the turn of the century. Besides, as a native species, it was protected. So one day while Breakstone was preparing to survey the lot, she went over to tell employee Jorge Wolf that the 55-foot-tall tree, whose branches extend over her house, was to be left alone.

He said, "If you fuck with me and keep me from tearing down this tree, I will make your life hell," Martin alleges. "He totally threatened me. I said, 'Um, that's a third-degree felony in the state of Florida. Would you care to continue?' Then he tried to bribe me: 'Oh, just let us tear the tree down. I'll landscape your yard, I'll put palm trees up, I'll do anything you want, just let me cut the tree down.'"

Martin refused. And Breakstone, she claims, began a campaign of harassment. "They started following me, stalking me at night," she alleges. "They would have a guy in a gray Camaro parked outside my driveway. They ripped down most of my ficus hedge. They would have people coming onto my property and tapping on the windows at night."

Martin and her husband had put up a sign in front of their home that read "Help Save This Tree." Her allies in the neighborhood did the same, and Martin launched a Website urging citizens to call the Department of Environmental Resource Management to lobby for the tree's right to stay. More than 200 residents signed a petition.

At the same time Martin launched a new crusade to save a historic eight-bedroom mansion a few blocks away on La Gorce Drive. Breakstone planned to raze it. But meanwhile the "Help Save This Tree" signs kept disappearing, and Martin believed Breakstone was responsible. As more signs started popping up in her neighbors' yards, Martin says she reached an agreement with chief executive officer Noah Breakstone: Take down the signs, he allegedly offered, and the house and the tree can stay.

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