MIAMI BEACH – When South Beach was little more than a forlorn chunk of beachfront property, preservationists clung to the idea that the faded, often derelict pastel buildings lining the streets were too precious to knock down.
Their campaign to preserve the area's fanciful Art Deco buildings ushered in one of the country's most successful urban revivals. Years later, South Beach is still a juggernaut.
Preservationists are now pushing hard to bolster historic preservation laws, a move that has ruffled wealthy property owners (and potential buyers) and stepped up pressure on local commissioners who are reluctant to wade into the politically precarious battle.
"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."
While it had been brewing on and off for years, the campaign by preservationists to better protect these Miami Beach homes was abruptly set in motion last month by the planned demolition of one especially notable house: a gleaming white neo-Classical mansion, built in 1925 by Walter DeGarmo, a prominent Miami architect of the era, that sits on the aptly named Star Island and exudes old Florida grandeur.
It does not hurt the preservationists' cause that the house's new owners carry splashy names in South Florida social circles. Dr. Leonard M. Hochstein, a well-known plastic surgeon, and his wife, Lisa, a Canadian model and one of the "Real Housewives of Miami," bought the waterfront house last year for $7.6 million, sight unseen, in a foreclosure proceeding.
After sending an engineer to inspect the house, the Hochsteins decided that it was too deteriorated and outmoded to renovate. Instead, they submitted design plans to the City of Miami Beach to raze the house, as many property owners do, and build a 20,000-square-foot home, with six bedrooms, seven bathrooms, a game room and wine cellar, among other amenities. Applications of this sort are common in Miami Beach.
"That's when the fireworks started," Dr. Hochstein said.
When the Miami Design Preservation League, which led the movement to keep Art Deco hotels in South Beach from the rubble pile, heard about the demolition application last month, a member filed a request to designate the house at 42 Star Island Drive as historic. The designation would help protect the house, which is near the homes of Gloria Estefan and Sean Combs.
The request was unusual. Historic designation of private homes is typically sought by a homeowner who prizes the design and wants to benefit from tax deductions meant to encourage preservation. But, in this case, preservation league members felt compelled to stop the expected demolition of a "crown jewel on that chain of islands," said Michael D. Kinerk, chairman emeritus of the league.
Dr. Hochstein, though, said he felt ambushed by the preservationists, particularly because the city does not have the power to stop the demolitions of nonhistoric homes. Dr. Hochstein said that he was distressed by the personal tenor of the fight and that the preservationists are capitalizing on the couple's celebrity to make a larger point.
"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."
He added, "If this home was a historic home, I wouldn't have bought it. To go and try to do this after the fact, against my will, is really unsettling."
The house, he said, sits well below the flood plain and has severe structural problems. It does not comply with strict hurricane regulations. It has cloth wiring, no air-conditioning and no plumbing on the second floor. And because it was built to maximize sea breezes, the house is long and narrow, with one room tumbling into the next.
Dr. Hochstein said he reached 22 of the 32 homeowners on the island, and none objected to the house's demolition, considering its state of disrepair. Meanwhile, he continues to negotiate with the city's Design Review Board, which oversees the construction of houses, about the new home and whether a portion of the old house can be saved.
The city is expected to make a decision on 42 Star Island in February.
"This is not Vizcaya," he said, referring to a historic Miami estate that is now a museum. "This is a residential home. It is a private home, a huge difference."
Preservationists said that the recent increase in the number of demolition applications for important pre-World War II homes has underscored the need to change the law. Demolition permits have been issued for 24 of these homes in the past year. By comparison, only 13 permits were given out from 2007 to 2011. More are pending. At the moment, the city's Design Review Board cannot block a permit to demolish single-family home unless it has been declared historic; it can only approve the design of a new home.
Tax incentives put in place in 2002 meant to encourage homeowners to ask for historic designation and preserve their houses are no longer working. That is because, in recent years, Miami Beach has drawn increasingly wealthy owners who are building increasingly large houses. The recession did not slow the pace of these renovations.
"Now, you have so many people coming in with so much money, they are saying we don't need to be bothered with that," said Jeff Donnelly, the public historian for the Miami Design Preservation League. "Incentives are not working anymore. We are not saying that every single property should be designated historic, but there should be a public process to determine it."
With the pressure on, Miami Beach commissioners are expected to consider whether to strengthen historic preservation laws and allow residential historic districts. First, though, the community must weigh in. A similar effort begun a decade ago foundered under the hefty opposition of developers, real estate brokers and some residents.
Still, Miami Beach residents are generally in favor of preservation, despite the few homes designated historic. They recognize that it was the preservation of the city's Art Deco and Moderne architecture that stoked Miami Beach's popularity and economic boom. In November, residents voted 61 percent in favor of a measure that would require a referendum to weaken preservation laws and the city's preservation boards.
"Our historic architecture defines our city," Mr. Kinerk said. "We have very strong preservation laws in Miami Beach, and it has done nothing but benefit the city. Nobody can dispute this."
But the task, when it comes to individual homes and property rights, is far from simple.
"There has to be substantial public support for it, and it's going to be tough, yes, because development pressures and the level of wealth are so great," said Mr. Cary, the assistant planning director. "Many residents feel they should have the right to demolish their homes; they own it."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.