Bubil: $22 million tear-down was scene of famed heist


One of the most interesting and expensive houses in Florida is, in fact, a $22 million tear-down.

On five acres facing Biscayne Bay in Miami's tony Coconut Grove, 10 minutes south of the gleaming condo towers of Brickell Avenue, the former DuPont Estate has just been removed from the MLS. A sale is pending.

The buyer, said listing agent Toni Schrager of Avatar Real Estate, will spend $250,000 to tear down the 27,000-square-foot house. "It was built really, really well," said Schrager.

colhbubil14bThe narrow property, 1,100 feet deep with just 225 feet of water frontage, is platted for seven new luxury homes. Walled, gated and with a boat house and yacht basin, the property is at the end of lush St. Gaudens Road, not far from the Cocowalk tourist magnet.

Described as "modern," the mansion was built in 1964 and looks it — it is a bigger version of the houses one would find in Sarasota's Harbor Acres or Bird Key in the 1960s. Most of those have been torn down, too.

What makes it notable, other than its size, is who built it, in 1964, and that happened there three years later.

The original owner was Willis duPont, an heir of that duPont family. The rich ones. DuPont Chemical, etc. Willis and his Spanish wife, Miren, lived in the house with their two young sons and were concerned with security. So concerned, in fact, that they laid off their security guard and installed a closed-circuit television system to patrol the estate, which has a privacy wall that extends into the bay, according to an article by Les Standiford published by Reader's Digest.

There is just one thing about an electronic security system. It must be turned on. And on the rainy evening of Oct. 4, 1967, it was not turned on. And, a patio door was unlocked.

Willis, then 30, would lament these oversights later that night when a band of armed home invaders broke into the house. Admonishing the duPont heir for not having to work for a living, they tied up Willis, his older son, 4, and two servants, and instructed Miren to open the safe. The 1-year-old was left upstairs, asleep in his crib. The thieves did not need any noise from him.

Miren, then 27, complained that she could not remember the combination to the safe. One of the thieves suggested that the threat of a bullet to the head might improve her memory. The numbers came to her.

Inside the safe, they found $50,000. But elsewhere in the house they found Willis' fabled collection of 7,000 rare coins. In fact, the gang had stumbled upon a motherlode — one of the most valuable hauls of jewelry and coins ever to be stolen in the U.S., worth about $10.4 million in today's dollars. Among the coins was an 1866 silver dollar that is one of only two such coins ever struck by the U.S. mint without the "In God We Trust" motto.

They dumped the loot into the duPonts' expensive luggage and took off in Miren's red Cadillac convertible. Twenty minutes later, the butler escaped from his necktie bindings, freed the others and called police.

Mrs. duPont's car was found soon thereafter, but she did not want the purloined Cadillac back. The dealer delivered a new one the next day.

The duPonts no longer wanted the house, either. They didn't even bother to sell it, instead donating it to the University of Pennsylvania, which did sell it. Willis and Miren moved to a more secure house in Palm Beach and have refused media interviews about the event, speaking only with police.

Many of the gems and coins have been recovered, some of them found just a few years ago.

The house, though, has lost its luster. Down it will come, a historical footnote in one of Florida's richest communities.


Harold Bubil

Recipient of the 2015 Bob Graham Architectural Awareness Award from the American Institute of Architects/Florida-Caribbean, Harold Bubil is real estate editor of the Herald-Tribune Media Group. Born in Newport, R.I., his family moved to Sarasota in 1958. Harold graduated from Sarasota High School in 1970 and the University of Florida in 1974 with a degree in journalism. For the Herald-Tribune, he writes and edits stories about residential real estate, architecture, green building and local development history. He also is a photographer and public speaker. Contact him via email, or at (941) 361-4805.
Last modified: April 13, 2013
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