Buying Michael Bolla’s Chelsea Mansion for Dummies
A Daily News article on Michael Bolla’s restoration of 436 West 20th Street said “the house was raised 8 inches to become more level.” It appears to be tied to the house next door by a shared party wall. If Bolla raised his house without considering this, it might explain his house’s cracked and sloping façade.
436 West 20th Street, the 1835 Chelsea row house that real estate broker Michael Bolla “restored” and marketed as Chelsea Mansion is for sale. When ArchiTakes first reported on the project’s violations, Bolla swore to a judge that he’d been defamed and trumpeted legal action aimed at me in an obliging press. The press failed to report that he never sued.
ArchiTakes finds Bolla’s row house still has issues at the Department of Buildings that any potential buyer should know about. Drawings have been filed to answer the Department’s objections from an April 7, 2010, audit, but construction hasn’t been modified to match these drawings.
One Building Department objection addressed the new windows Bolla installed in the house’s party wall with its neighbor. Drawings filed in response on April 7, 2011, show the windows as sprinklered, 3/4-hour fire-rated, and a model that’s steel-framed. If this change has been made, the windows would violate Bolla’s earlier approval from the Landmarks Commission, which is for wood-framed windows. ArchiTakes found no application on file at the Department of Buildings to install sprinklers in the house.
Another Department of Buildings audit objection referred to an apparent building enlargement at the fourth floor and attic, where Bolla built a mezzanine within a raised rear roof. The objection calls for filing an Alteration Type 1 application if this is the case, a higher level than the Type 2 application Bolla filed for what it lists as $75,000 of interior renovation. Filing an Alteration Type 1 would require Bolla to obtain a Certificate of Occupancy for the house and make the potentially substantial modifications that might entail. (Converting the house to single-family use would do the same.) An Alteration Type 1 would also mean that Bolla’s work couldn’t be inspected and signed-off as legal by his architect, but would be subject to Department of Buildings inspection. Bolla’s architect answered the Department’s objection about enlargement by filing new drawings that simply don’t show the mezzanine, although it’s actually still there and serving as a bedroom. His actions suggest that the Department’s self-certification program, which trusts in the integrity of state-licensed professionals, amounts to letting the fox guard the hen house. The New York Times called self-certification “an honor system instituted to save money during the Giuliani administration” in a feature on architect Robert Scarano, viewed by many as the poster child of the program’s abuse.
To dismiss an objection by the Department of Buildings about the penthouse mezzanine Bolla installed under a raised rear roof, his architect Gary Silver filed this drawing nearly a year ago on November 2, 2011, which shows the mezzanine removed and a high ceiling in its place, at right. Silver must sign off that actual construction matches this drawing, unless a new buyer wants to take that one on. The mezzanine appears to remain in use as a bedroom, as viewed from a nearby building. Bolla’s website describes the penthouse as currently rented.
Bolla’s alterations won’t be finally accepted by the Department of Buildings until his architect, Gary Silver, signs off that he has made an inspection and found that construction matches the drawings he filed. As things stand, this is a tall order. The Department’s online Building Information System shows that Silver hasn’t signed off, and that the project’s work permit renewal would have expired in January. I have informed the Building Department’s Manhattan Borough Commissioner in person of the discrepancy between the house’s currently filed documents and its built reality.
The status of the party wall windows is a public safety concern, as this type of window affects potential fire spread between two properties, not to mention the safety of Bolla’s tenants. His new penthouse windows are only a few feet above the roof of the adjacent 19th century row house and its egress stair’s skylight. Technically, the current building code doesn’t allow windows in lot-line walls, but what it calls “protected openings,” which must be fire-resistance rated. Earlier codes which may apply allow windows but require them to be fire-resistance rated. (See below.) Until they are inspected and certified, there’s no way to know that they are protected with code compliant ratings. A complaint was made to the Department of Buildings about these windows on December 15th, 2010. According to the house’s records in the Department’s online Building Information System, an inspector who visited the house on March 8, 2011, in response to the complaint was unable to gain access, and inspectors were likewise unable to gain access on three later dates. Each time, inspectors posted an LS-4, which the Department’s website describes as “a legal notice that directs property representatives to contact DOB to arrange for an inspection.” Inspectors were likewise unable to gain access on two visits, one last week, in response to a complaint of filed drawings not matching actual construction. They again posted LS-4s, bringing the total to six.
If you think Bolla couldn’t hear the doorbell over the din of hammers and saws speeding his building into code compliance, you’re sadly mistaken. In the same period when inspectors were not let in, others were. Bolla told the press he was renting the penthouse with its “mezzanine floor” bedroom to composer Claire van Kampen and her husband, actor Mark Rylance, in an AM New York piece titled, “NYC’s wealthy, leery of buying, embrace super-pricey rentals.” The lot-line windows that still haven’t been signed-off on appear prominently in advertisements for the house on both Bolla’s and Prudential Douglas Elliman’s websites along with descriptions of the river view they are claimed to provide. As of this writing, Bolla’s website says the penthouse is rented.
Potential buyers who visit 436 West 20th Street should know the house comes with very big strings attached to the Department of Buildings that won’t be cut with the sale of the house. It might be worth asking why Bolla hasn’t tied them off himself in so much time and now wants to pass them off to a new owner. Typically, the lender for any buyer needing a mortgage will check the house’s Department of Buildings data, where unfinished business in the public record and the absence of a Certificate of Occupancy would be red flags.
Not long after Bolla’s legal action aimed at me was covered in the New York Post, I was contacted by Patricia Henrichs, his former business partner in Luxury Lofts & Homes, who wanted to meet. Ms. Henrichs, who passed away last year, offered encouragement and her belief that Bolla wasn’t good for his word. She said she had long handled apartment rentals in 436 for its former owner, Frances Gaar, and arranged Bolla’s purchase of it. Ms. Henrichs said Bolla promised the dying Ms. Gaar that he would preserve her house, as has been reported in the New York Times. She saw Bolla’s subsequent alterations as a betrayal of her old client’s dying wish, and was dumbfounded when Bolla sent out an antique chandelier for cleaning and it came back looking more replaced than cleaned. Ms. Henrichs claimed to have confronted Bolla, reminding him she’d been looking at the original chandelier for years and wasn’t fooled. She also said she had feared Bolla would short her on her finder’s fee, after watching him make less than full payment to others on the excuse of poor service. She claimed to have obtained her own full payment from Bolla’s investment partner, whom she trusted more.
“We heard the same stories,” Lesley Doyel and her husband Nick Fritsch told ArchiTakes. “Pat said Bolla had specifically promised Frances Gaar he’d keep the chandeliers with the house.” The two were old friends and next door neighbors of Ms. Henrichs on the same block of West 20th Street where 436 stands. Ms. Doyel is co-president of the community advocacy group, Save Chelsea. The couple told ArchiTakes:
Prior to Mr. Bolla’s renovation, we were asked by him to write a letter of support to the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission. We wrote the letter in good faith, thinking it was to be a serious and thorough job. We were subsequently astonished and aghast at the condition in which his restoration appears to have left the house, with facade cracks visible even at a distance.
Bolla’s alterations have left the house nearly unrecognizable from the back, where the rear slope of its traditional gable roof has been tilted up until effectively flat to squeeze in the fourth floor mezzanine missing in the current filed drawings. Historically incongruous air conditioning units and their support steel have been mounted above the historic roof peak. Its botched street façade has stood cracked for so long it received a “failure to maintain” violation from the Department of Buildings last August. Bolla’s work earned multiple Landmarks violations and two failed audits from the Department of Buildings. Nonetheless, he referred to himself “ . . . as a preservationist, as an architect . . .” in a news item about his much publicized financial rescue of a Lower East Side Judaica store earlier this year. (The store was soon quietly replaced by a clothing boutique.) Anyone can call himself a preservationist, but architects have to be licensed. It comes as no surprise that Bolla isn’t listed as such on the verification page of the New York State Office of the Professions.
Bolla’s way with the truth is at least consistent, whether to a judge, the press, city oversight agencies, or – if Ms. Henrichs was to be believed – individuals who place trust in him. ArchiTakes will be back soon with a closer look at his world, where some in real estate and PR exploit the press and courts, and attack free speech and public participation in government.
We’ll also continue our look at Bolla, who in August chaired an event on business ethics at the Aish Center on the Lower East Side. He’ll be honored at the Center’s annual gala on November 13th, at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, as he was at the Carlebach Shul’s annual gala on June 19th. Bolla’s recently emerging persona as savior of the Jewish Lower East Side corresponds with his marketing campaign for the neighborhood’s Madison-Jackson condo development as a catalyst for Jewish culture.
Meanwhile, 436 West 20th Street can be yours for $19 million, complete with “original chandeliers of Czechoslovakian crystal dating from 1830,” according to the website of Prudential Douglas Elliman, where Bolla is a managing director. Elliman’s website says “. . . Bolla brings an in-depth understanding and experience in dealing with NYC Department of Buildings . . .”
A new wood-sided rear “dormer” addition provides headroom for the fourth floor mezzanine shown removed in the section drawing farther above. (If you have a hard time finding the dormer, it’s because it consumes nearly the entire rear roof, overbuilt by Bolla and retroactively legalized by a Landmarks Commission which somehow bought his argument that overbuilding was structurally necessary.) The windows in the peaked brick side wall above the roof in the foreground were introduced by Bolla. The Landmarks Commission’s permit requiring wood windows here was instantly problematic, at odds with the Building Code’s requirement for fire-resistant protected openings which typically involve steel framed windows. Silver filed drawings with the Department of Buildings which at first simply didn’t show these new windows, then filed an amendment showing them not as if new but already existing, apparently hoping to dodge the issue. The skylight under the larger of these window openings lights the egress stair of the neighboring house. If the new windows don’t have a code compliant fire-resistance rating, they could short-circuit fire safety. (It is my own interpretation that Building Code article 715.4.8 requires protected window openings here of 1-1/2 hour-rating, not 3/4-hour as now filed. The row house’s lot-line windows appear to be in a true party wall, and thus subject to the current stricter code’s requirements, regardless of the house’s original construction date, in my view. Bolla elected the option to file the house under an older code, but Article 28-306.1 of the current code says any change to party walls “must maintain the . . . fire division and other requirements of this code for party walls.” Chapter 7 of the code, Fire-resistance Rated Construction, Article 705.4, states that a party wall “shall be constructed as a fire wall.” Table 705.4 requires a three-hour fire-resistive rating for multiple dwelling fire walls, and Table 715.5 calls for a fire window rating of 1-1/2 hours in exterior walls required to have greater than a 1 hour rating. Regardless of which code and rating apply, Bolla’s architect hasn’t certified that the installed windows are the 3/4-hour rated ones he filed in his drawings.)
This page from the Department of Buildings’ online Building Information System, or BIS, shows that no part of Bolla’s renovation has yet been certified by his architect Gary Silver including Fire-Resistive Rated Construction, which covers lot-line windows. The job’s Work Permit renewal appears to have expired nine months ago, according to BIS.
More on 436 West 20th Street:
Where is Michael Bolla’s Lawsuit? – March 1, 2011
The Seamy Side of 436 West 20th Street – October 7, 2010
Chelsea Mansion: The Art of Fiction – August 12, 2010
436 West 20th Street Rises Above the Law – March 18, 2010