A House Named Suh

The planned teardown of a football star's family home in Irvington raises doubts about neighborhood preservation.

 

It's a two-story home, white with red trim and a brick arch over the front porch. The grass is scruffy, the shrubs rangy and the venetian blinds drawn tight. It's also doomed.

The 1,400-square-foot home, built in 1922, is scheduled to be torn down to make way for a new house nearly three times its size. Neighbors want to stop it.

The proposed teardown in Irvington is just another skirmish in the widening fight against ripping out old homes and replacing them with new ones that neighbors consider monstrosities, out of scale and out of place with their surroundings.

But this teardown is different for two big reasons.

First, neighbors say they thought historic protections in Irvington would prevent any more demolitions there. Turns out they were wrong.

Second, the house to be torn down is the family home of Ndamukong Suh, the all-pro defensive tackle for the Miami Dolphins who two months ago became the highest-paid defensive player in the history of the National Football League.

The home appeared in a 2011 Chrysler television commercial featuring Suh. And it's still owned by his mother, Bernadette. The designer of the new house planned for the lot says Bernadette Suh will move in when the project is finished.

Peter Cole, who lives on Northeast 14th Avenue behind the Suh house, calls the new design "architecturally a bad neighbor. In sheer scale, it is essentially the biggest possible thing that you could fit on that piece of ground."

Neighbors say the Suh house teardown will be a test case to see whether special historic protections for Irvington have any meaning. The celebrity nature of the teardown only adds to the public attention it's received.

"Remodels have maintained the character of the neighborhood," says Frank McNamara, who also lives on Northeast 14th Avenue behind the Suh house. "I'm surprised they gave permission."

Irvington received a historic designation in 2010, which means any major changes to homes have to undergo review to ensure they fit the character of the neighborhood. 

"There haven't been any demolitions since the district was approved," says Dean Gisvold, chairman of the Irvington Community Association's land-use committee. He says nobody has even tried.

Then the plans for the Suh house entered the picture.

The neighborhood's historic status makes it all but impossible to tear down most of Irvington's homes, but there's a loophole. About 15 percent of Irvington's houses are considered "non-contributing" to the neighborhood's historic character. 

It's not exactly clear why the Suh house falls under this exemption, but alterations made to a home's exterior can mean it no longer adds to the neighborhood's character. The Suh house was put on the non-contributing list by the neighborhood itself at the time the historic designation was granted.

Gisvold and others in the neighborhood won't necessarily mourn the demolition of the current house and say they probably can't stop it.

What they hope to do is block construction of another structure like the one neighboring the Suh house to the south, a $1.2 million 5,800-square-foot house that went up in 2007. 

McNamara, who lives directly behind the three-story house, says he had to redesign his backyard because of the shadow the new home cast.

McNamara says the Suh family objected strenuously when the bigger house went up next door to them.

"They were very upset with that building," McNamara says. "They complained a lot. Bernadette, she was not happy."

Bernadette Suh didn't respond to WW's calls asking for an interview. 

The new house's designer, Rich Eisenhauer, says the Suh family isn't getting entangled in the debate. He hopes to alter the house's design so it fits the neighborhood's character and meets the city's criteria. 

When asked if he thought he could come up with a design that would make all of the neighbors happy, Eisenhauer replied: "No. Never."

McNamara says Bernadette Suh moved out of her house a year ago. The Suh family lived there while Ndamukong was growing up. He eventually played football at Grant High School. 

Ndamukong Suh went on to an All-American career at the University of Nebraska, where he led the team in tackles, won the Associated Press Player of the Year Award and was a finalist for the 2009 Heisman Trophy.

The Detroit Lions picked him No. 2 overall in the 2010 NFL draft, and at 6-foot-4 and 305 pounds, Suh became one of the leading defensive players in the league. In March, the Miami Dolphins signed him to a six-year, $114 million contract.

Sporting News

Neighbors say the connection to Suh has no relation to their concerns about what is happening to his mother's house. 

McNamara, for example, has fond memories of Ndamukong, whom he says kept pet rabbits and asked permission to come into McNamara's yard to look for them when they got loose.

While the home's designer isn't optimistic about reaching a compromise, neighbors hope they can work something out with the Suhs.

"I think the Suh family is trying to do the right thing," Cole says. "The family had good intentions, but the development team has proposed a structure that is sideways with the rules.” 

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