Boca Raton: Bid Adieu to La Vieille Maison

Seabass with lobster sauce from Chef Christian Potvin, formerly of La Vieille Maison

Seabass with lobster sauce from Chef Christian Potvin, formerly of La Vieille Maison

Is it any consolation that there are idiots everywhere? Not really.

Well, another one bites the dust. This time in Boca Raton, Florida. Apparently this 1927 beauty was too “vieille” for Boca Raton.

Amidst a throng of people who desperately wanted to save the place, the Grand Dame fell to the wrecking ball in November of last year.

“It’s a crime,” said Marvin Kaplan, a patron for three decades.  “Nobody should have destroyed it.”

Instead of designating it as a historic structure, the city building inspectors determined it would be “impossible to restore”.

“Impossible to restore”? Maybe parts of Detroit are “impossible to restore”, but nonetheless, people are restoring them! (That will be in another post). Want to see what “impossible to restore” looks like? See below:

La Vieille Maison, Boca Raton, Florida

La Vieille Maison, Boca Raton, Florida: Impossible to restore?

“Everybody wanted to save it,” Boca Raton Historical Society executive director Mary Csar said. “Many people had ties to the restaurant because they had dined there.

“But it was just in such bad shape,” Csar said.

I mean, really. A little lathe and plaster, paint, and we would be back in business, n’est-ce pas?

From “The Coastal Star”:

“La Vieille Maison was known as the grand dame in fine dining. Nothing matched its ambiance. Waiters in tuxedos gave menus with prices only to gentlemen. Ladies never saw them. The gentlemen were required to wear jackets. Classical music played in the background, blending with the glow of candlelight.

The menu featured such delicacies as caviar with buckwheat blini and fois gras with lingonberry preserves.

The filet mignon was dressed with béarnaise or bordelaise. The escargot, lobster bisque, steak tartare and sweetbreads matched the culinary delights offered by the finest French restaurants in Paris.

Owner Leonce Picot hired only career waiters and captains, who remembered the wine choices of patrons and how they preferred to have their food cooked. They were polished professionals who knew how to prepare and serve crepes Suzette tableside.

“Each waiter would each speak three or four languages,” patron Kathy Assaf recalled. “We would phone ahead and say what language we wanted spoken at the table.”

That was convenient for her husband, Ron Assaf, the Sensormatic founder who did business in 100 countries. La Vieille Maison was the perfect restaurant to entertain foreign executives when they came to Boca Raton.

“We could have our food cooked in special ways,” Kathy Assaf said.  “They would accommodate us in any way.”

The two-story restaurant shaded by massive live oaks had several private dining rooms in addition to the main dining room on the first floor.

Some rooms were the perfect size for business groups and large family occasions. Other more intimate rooms in the old house were a favorite spot for marriage proposals.

The Kaplans always requested the Goldfish Room, where the table overlooked a koi pond.

“It was probably the best French restaurant within 50 miles,”  Kaplan said. “When it closed, I didn’t want to go to another French restaurant. It was that good. I wanted to savor the memories.”

The 2006 closing came after Picot received several offers to buy his property at 770 E. Palmetto Park Road. A historic designation for the house would have prevented its demolition.”

La Vieille Maison, recently

La Vieille Maison, recently

and here’s the kicker:

“I used to think it would be nice to have that designation. But boy, I’m glad I didn’t do it — I’d never be able to sell it,” Picot was quoted as saying five years ago. He received $2.6 million for the property.

The 1927 house was built by Thomas Giles, an engineer for architect Addison Mizner, in the same Mediterranean Revival style that Mizner had chosen for the distinctive homes that he built in Old Floresta two years before.

The Giles family lived in the house for 25 years until it became the Por La Mar Apartments in 1953 and later a real estate office before Picot’s purchase.

The current property owner, TJCV Land Trust, hasn’t requested city permission as yet to construct a new building at the site, Woika said.”

If anyone has any photos of happier times at La Vielle Maison, please send me an email at preservation@usa.com.

Giles House, Boca Raton, Florida, in happier times

Giles House, Boca Raton, Florida, in happier times

Hall of Shame: Government Center, Boston

Government Center, Boston, MA

Government Center, Boston, MA

The picture above is that lovely, wide-open vista that seemingly landed in Boston like a meteor shower, creating a giant crater. It’s a trainwreck of a public space that I am unfortunately well acquainted with – Government Center, in Boston, MA.

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS: Being a Bostonian, and studying the History of Boston at Harvard, I am painfully familiar with all the reasons why Government Center happened. What I cannot imagine is why, 30 years later, it remains one of the most awful public spaces in the country.

Boston itself is a superb city, with a rich and varied history. Packed with historic treasures, it is a haven for tourists, who flock to its spectacular sites routinely. Government Center has become the eyesore that won’t go away, in an otherwise magnificent city.

Scollay Square, the unfortunate area which was decimated to make way for Government Center, was a far more interesting and historic area, albeit a tad dicey. Since Boston was a seaport, it was always a haven for immigrants, and with them, came a rather unseemly lot of folk. One infamous place for congregating near the waterfront, which later became a den of iniquity, was Scollay Square. This area was a hotbed of activity, where international seamen and merchants frequented rather bawdy taverns, took in vaudeville and burlesque shows, and other intriguing entertainment.

Scollay Square Before and After

Scollay Square in the black and white photos above: Before (Above) and After (Below)

Scollay Square started out as Boston’s home to the elite and ruling class. John Winthrop (the founder of Boston and first Governor of Massachusetts) lived nearby, as did many other city and state officials. During the siege of Boston in 1775/76 the Brattle Square Church housed British troops. Today, this site would be the base of City Hall at City Hall Plaza.

As immigrants who followed in the mid- to late-1800s, changed the character of Boston, the elite began to abandon the Square, and by the 1880s, it had become the center of commercial activity in Boston.

The Square played a large role in the 1919 Boston Police Strike, brought on in part by the dramatic cavalry charge, ordered by Governor Calvin Coolidge, to disperse the “15,000 ruffians” who had gathered there.

It might not have been perfect, but it sure had character. The city officials were sick of the bar-room brawls, and occasional all-out riots that occured there. By the 1940’s and 50’s, Boston’s economy had become quite depressed in this area, prompting officials to take drastic measures to clean the place up.

The Last Days of Scollay Square – The Old Howard Theater…

The Old Howard Theater goes down in a puff of smoke

The Old Howard Theater goes down in a puff of smoke

Their solution? Government Center. Built by Kallmann, McKinnell and Knowles between 1963 and 1968, the design for Boston City Hall and its accompanying plaza won a national competition to replace a 90-acre “urban renewal” site with today’s Government Center. How ironic that nearby – but now effectively cut off thanks to the design of Government Center – is Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market, birthplace of another trend in urban planning: historic preservation via the “festival marketplace.”

Why is Boston still stuck with this bloody thing? First off, the new attempts at redesigning it fail to take in the concept of the community, and how it congregates, as well as its nearby neighbors.

“It proves once again that design competitions accomplish little if nothing in creating great places. What does this say about design in a city with so many prominent designers (as opposed to placemakers) – a city where all the truly successful places are older?

While some places in the Hall of Shame have at least a few redeeming characteristics, everything about City Hall Plaza and the surrounding Government Center is all wrong. Bleak, expansive, and shapeless, it has an exceedingly poor image in a city where image should be paramount.” [Great Public Spaces, PPS Project for Public Spaces]