History meets the modern era through this home. From surviving the great hurricane of 1926 to providing Al Capone with a favorite hangout, to being renovated by a Polish countess in the 1970s – there’s a story or two in these walls.
Let’s begin by admiring the beauty that the home is today. Sitting on the river and across from Riverside Park, the timeless estate commands attention at first sight. And that’s even before you learn all the history behind it.
At first glance, you’ll notice the coral rock lining the street at the gated entrance. You’ll also see remnants of the coral rock at the base of the steps leading to the front entrance. On the right side of the property, a guest house turned woodshop greets you.
The property reaches to almost two acres of land with just as much outdoor space as indoor. Inside, there are four bedrooms, five full baths (including a full cabana bath) and a movie theater.
You’ll find tiny clues inside that give away the vintage of the 97-year-old home. One is the concrete interior walls that were inspired by Italian and Spanish villas. Another bygone era detail: the tiny little windows inside the two bedrooms upstairs overlooking the staircase. We can’t fail to mention the dining room table made from reclaimed wood that came from pilings from the 1924 dock.
Climbing the stairs, it’s hard not to notice the eye-catching Cuban tiles made exclusively for this home in the ’70s. These tiles are examples of the black and white accents throughout that give the home an edge while the wooden features soften the façade.
Once you reach the top, you’re a few steps away from everything a master suite should offer: a master bath, morning kitchen, lounge area off the master bed, two walk-in closets and a private outdoor terrace. The lounge area and the master bedroom are completely separate but meet with a doorway and have different access points that lead to the beautiful views of the New River and downtown. Sunset’s a perfect time up here.
The monstrous master bath features a walk-in shower and tub that measures about 9.5 by 8 feet.
The exterior is a whole other wow factor that makes this home a looker. Beyond the 50-foot saltwater pool and greenery, 153 square feet of waterfrontage sets the scene for any outdoor hangout. You’ve got 240 square feet of dockage with the latest storm-rated anchors and floating docks engineered to withstand hurricanes of up to a category 3 making this a true marina.
But what of the home’s history? The historical landmark property’s timeline dates all the way back to 1915, the year Broward became a county and Fort Lauderdale High School opened. Broward County’s first judge, Judge J.F. Bunn, constructed two frame buildings on the site. In 1924, Harry and Lucy Bender, a couple from Indiana, bought the property and renovated the home before moving in two years later. During a trip to Europe, Mrs. Bender fell in love with Spanish and Italian architecture and was determined to have her new winter home replicate just that.
Mr. Bender owned a well-known tailoring business. So well known, in fact, that it is said he was Al Capone’s personal tailor. The infamous gangster is believed to have spent a lot of time in this residence. Back then, it is believed to have been used as a Prohibition house and casino.
Aside from the Benders’ social life and business, they were influential figures in early Fort Lauderdale days. Mr. Bender was involved in civic affairs and they were often written about in the local newspapers. He is even listed as one of the original members of the Fort Lauderdale Yacht Club.
After the Benders passed, the home remained vacant for more than 30 years until 1969 when a countess set her eyes on it.
Countess Astrid Grabowski-Dewart of Poland fled the Nazis in 1939, eventually landing in Paris. There she learned the art of fashion design, which would later become a significant part of her life in Fort Lauderdale.
Upon her arrival here, she married a quiet university professor and moved into what appeared to be a challenging project.
After she finished renovating the home, she told Gold Coast Pictorial: “I have never seen such a strange house and I have designed and decorated 15 houses in my life. Everything inside is round, no corners, and outside is a box.” The article even highlights the Cuban tiles, stating, “Polished black and white Cuban tiles paving the stairs and hallway lend a terrific, smart new look to old stairs that had been painted in dreary dull gray.” Those same tiles remain.
The countess also had her fair share of well-known guests, like Oscar de la Renta.
In 2017, the home was purchased and renovated by general contracting firm owner Tom Forney of Forney Construction and his wife, Holly.
The odd but exquisite designs throughout the property are representative of the past owners who are kept alive through their touches that remain. Lucy Bender had a love for European décor while Countess Astrid had a keen eye for decorating and a deep appreciation for antiques. Both shared the talent of mixing in modern flair. Maybe they’re somewhere clinking their glasses and loving what the home has become.