The Coral Gables Houses that Michael Steffens Rebuilt Shared two Characteristics: They Needed Lots of Work and they Were Worth the Effort
By Cyn. Zarco
Miracle Mile is the perfect place for an architect to set up shop. Ensconced on the second floor of a historic Mediterranean building off Salzedo, in what was originally a small apartment, Mike Steffens works at his wall-to-wall desk with The City Beautiful as backdrop. On his left is a bookcase full of miniature metal buildings, an enviable haul of hundreds of landmark collectibles from the Empire State Building to the Leaning Tower of Pisa. On the right, his prized architectural models hang on the wall.
Well-known as a champion of architectural historic preservation on the job and off, Steffens was once vice chair of the Coral Gables Planning & Zoning Board, as well as a longtime member of the Coral Gables Historic Preservation Board and the Coral Gables Board of Architects. In 1999, after 14 years at Zyscovich Architects working on landmark projects such as Coral Gables City Hall, the St. Moritz Hotel and the Bass Museum, Steffens teamed with architect Gregory Allen Neville and put their names on the door.
On a beautiful day at 316 Miracle Mile, Steffens walks out on the roof to a detached flat where his wife and design partner, Marjorie Goldman, keeps her workshop. “In the twenties, George Merrick built these apartments so each shop owner could live above the store,” he says. Simply redone and un-modernized, the sunny studio is reminiscent of an idyllic time when the art of living was less complicated. Prototypes of Goldman’s modernist chairs stand out in a room highlighted with bright canvases of her work.
The designer couple has lived in Coral Gables for over 30 years. They acquired and renovated four remarkable historic homes in the city, most notably the restoration of the eighth home ever built here, just down the road from The Biltmore Hotel – a 1923 Walter de Garmo two-story, five-bedroom Adobe Mediterranean at 2512 Columbus Blvd., with a chauffeur’s apartment out back. It was their second historic rehab – the first was a 1926 house at 832 Santiago St. off Calle Ocho – but a far greater challenge.
“We bought it on the courthouse steps for about $200,000 from the heirs of Gables mayor Joseph Murphy,” Steffens says proudly. “The house was abandoned for five years because the family was fighting over it for so long. So, the judge put it up for auction.”
That was back in 1989, when their $200,000 budget for renovating the 3,200-square-foot-house seemed huge but barely proved adequate. “Marge says we were young and stupid back then. We didn’t realize how much work or money we had to put in. It was not an easy project. There was very little concrete in the house – no concrete tie beams, no concrete lintels, etc., no good bones. Because there were no building codes until 1927, four years after it was built, the structure was fairly primitive. Even after we finished, we had problems with walls cracking and leaking.”
At 2512 Columbus, Marge and I tried to create something in the spirit of the house, something appropriate for the ’20s and ’90s…
The son of Francis Michael Steffens, former vice president of residential-community developers Arvida, Steffens grew up on big construction sites all over Florida. With this background plus years of working as an architect, Steffens was overqualified as his own architect/contractor, plumber and electrician on all four of the homes he restored.
“At 2512 Columbus, Marge and I tried to create something in the spirit of the house, something appropriate for the Twenties and the nineties,” he says. “We redid the whole place – electrical, plumbing – and installed a new roof and septic tank, insulated windows, ripped out four rooms for the kitchen, replaced walls with French doors, rebuilt the original wood-spindle gates to the courtyard, added a Moorish arch in the library and made a bar out of a closet.”
They also cut corners by getting friends to help with the demo. “Slamming walls with a sledgehammer is great anger management therapy,” he says with a grin. Next, after a decade of child-rearing, they pored over a hundred houses in and near the Gables to find their next project at 4501 Santa Maria.
Steffens tells the story: “Marge looked at a house one Friday afternoon. She didn’t like it, but I knew about the location. The street of Santa Maria is unique because it’s a nice private area by the Riviera Golf Course. Bob Griese lived there and Nick Buonoconti. The house belonged to the infamous Florida lawyer Chesterfield Smith of Holland & Knight. So, we went over there together. Soon as I saw it, I told Marge to call the realtor immediately. The open house was in two days. We made a deal to buy the house right then for over $1 million, practically its land value.”
Six years later, they sold the Santa Maria house and purchased their latest restoration challenge for $1.3 million – a 1957 3-bed/2.5-bath house just east of the Riviera Golf Course on Jeromino Drive. Not a Mediterranean this time, Steffens calls it “his Ranchburger.” The house was in poor shape, but had a big backyard and a dock on the Gables canal. The couple allotted another $100,000 but, this time, only four months to complete the redux.
Steffens explains: “The interior layout is 99 percent the same. Most of the big work was done outside on the pool and patio. We opened up the kitchen, knocked down some walls, reconfigured the garage, upgraded the windows, electric, plumbing, baths.” The result: A sunny, well-planned kitchen that sports an eat-in counter and a pass-through window to the pool. And with bathrooms outfitted with stylish designer fixtures and hardware, the house is 1950s meets 21st Century decor at its best – and their most contemporary, creature comfort casita to date.
So, what’s the downside to buying a historic home? As a former board member of the Coral Gables Historic Preservation Board and CG Board of Architects, he explains: “Historic renovation takes longer because you have to go through two boards… There are multiple layers of administration and reviews for all approvals, so if time is a big factor, I would reconsider. [Also] older houses have smaller bedrooms and bathrooms. Closets are not so big…”
So, why live in a historic home in Coral Gables? Steffens points out the financial advantage – the abatement of ad valorem taxes for the historic portion of any renovation. But it’s more fundamental than that. “Marge and I found houses here that we loved. It’s a personal choice, really. You have to want to own a historic house, to make compromises. But, when you have a historic house, you get a lot of character, a good backstory and some quality craftsmanship. It’s a whole lot better than living in a box full of cheap materials.”