Viewed from the New River, the Needham Estate requires your attention. Built in 1925, the 6,500-square-foot house offers a Spanish-styled look that’s clearly the work of Francis Abreu. The architect whose buildings defined the style of the city’s first boom is present in elements like the dramatic circular rooms jutting towards the river; Abreu loved a half-turret.
The yard curves, offering several outdoor spots for congregating partygoers, of which there have been many over the years. It’s not the most massive house around – heck, compared to some of the modern mansions farther east on the water, it’s not even the biggest house on the water in Fort Lauderdale by a long stretch. But the Needham Estate is possessed of something else – of a look and a style redolent of the 1920s. Stick a green light in an upstairs window and you’d be forgiven for assuming Jay Gatsby had relocated to Fort Lauderdale.
But all that’s from the water.
From the street, you might pass by the tall hedge and gate separating house from street without a second look. It’s only a block off Las Olas Boulevard, just south of the Riverside Hotel, but from the street side, you might as well be off on your own.
This, current owner Drew Romanovitz says, is an advantage.
“Once you close that gate, you’re closed to the world,” says Romanovitz, who owns the home with his wife, Sandy.
The house, listed as a historic site by the city of Fort Lauderdale, is one of the few remaining intact private homes built by Abreu. (Other surviving Abreu buildings include the structure that is now the Casablanca Café, the Riverside Hotel’s original building and part of St. Anthony School in Victoria Park.) Recently put on the market for $3,499,000, the estate sits at a slight bend in the river, across from another historic Abreu house and the RioVista public park that bears his name. It’s a reference point for boat captains, who use “the girls’ school” as a landmark when talking to each other or bridge tenders over the radio. (The nickname refers to former uses of the estate, which at various times housed both a modeling school and a finishing school.)
Originally built for John W. Needham, an early Fort Lauderdale powerbroker who at one time served as mayor, the estate was also home for a time to Broward sheriff Walter Clark – the man who once insisted before a Senate committee on the matter that there was no gambling in his jurisdiction. (He owned a stake in an illegal casino.) At the height of the Second World War, Winston Churchill and President Roosevelt were entertained at the house while on a trip to Florida.
The house itself looks the part for such guests. Entering, you find hand-laid Cuban tiles below and a dramatic staircase in front of you.
Ceilings are pecky cypress and tall – 14 feet on the ground floor. Floors are Dade pine and solid; an upstairs bedroom that’s been converted into a gym needed no floor reinforcements before all the workout equipment went in.
It’s the sort of house that somewhat mocks the concept of the master bedroom; there are three en-suite bedrooms, and all seem fairly masterful.
Then there are those upstairs views, including the one from the semicircle room closest to the river.
Rooms are large and spill out into various parts of the yard, with a few little nooks and crannies for more intimate meetings – this is a house made for socializing. “Parties were big things in the ’20s,” Romanovitz notes. “This house was built to entertain.”
Today of course, the parties are a bit different. But this slice of Fort Lauderdale history still offers prime viewing for one of the main events of the modern city’s social calendar. “This,” Romanovitz says, “is the best viewing spot for the Winterfest boat parade.”