Chelsea Mansion: The Art of Fiction
In February, a Daily News article by Jason Sheftell described 436 West 20th Street as “one of the most perfectly restored homes in Manhattan.” Cracked and displaced bricks and window lintels are now features of its façade, following restoration by its owner, the real estate broker Michael Bolla. ArchiTakes first reported on the building in a March post, “436 West 20th Street Rises Above the Law.” Bolla is now marketing the 1835 rowhouse as “Chelsea Mansion.” It stands within the Chelsea Historic District.
A detail of the building’s drooping right face. Jason Sheftell’s Daily News piece - “Back to Life: Perfect restoration draws big-name renters at $15K per month”- dutifully quoted Michael Bolla as saying, “Everything I restore is a work of art to me.”
Bolla’s presentation package to the Landmarks Preservation Commission included this rendering of a squared-up 436 West 20th Street with its front fire escape removed. The view is similar to the one used for several months on the building’s marketing website and endlessly reproduced in its press. Removal of the fire escape was presumably a selling point in the December 7, 2009, package of proposed modifications Bolla submitted to the Landmarks Preservation Commission; the permit it issued Bolla a week later states that the fire escape’s ”removal will enhance the building’s historic features and character,” and that its “deteriorated condition is causing damage to the facade, therefore its removal will aid the preservation of the building’s historic fabric . . .”
As of the date of this writing, the building’s fire escape remains in place. Removing it might be viewed by the Department of Buildings as a “change of egress” requiring Bolla to obtain a Certificate of Occupancy for the building. It currently has no Certificate of Occupancy. Photos of the building’s restored interior on its website give no indication that sprinklers have been installed, despite a restoration described by Sheftells’ Daily News piece as having cost over $500 per square foot. Sprinkler installation at an interior stair is a typical prerequisite for removal of a fire escape.
Not only did Bolla fail to remove the building’s front fire escape, but he raised its brick gable in violation of his Landmarks permit, which was explicitly predicated on ”maintaining the historic profile of the roofline.” After ArchiTakes brought this to light in March, Bolla received a “Landmark” violation from the Department of Buildings, which also initiated an audit of the job-filing for work on the building. Since April 8th, the Department’s online Building Information System has indicated that the audit resulted in issuance of a “Notice to Revoke,” signaling that his job filing had failed the audit and that the Department intended to pull the building’s work permit. Bolla has since lowered the brick gable wall somewhat, although it remains higher than the historic profile, visible as darker brickwork in the photo above. It’s unlikey Bolla could have misinterpreted his Landmarks permit, or been unaware of work done on his building in violation of it. In January, the New York Real Estate Journal wrote that Bolla “is considered one of the city’s foremost experts in historic preservation, particularly of landmarked properties,” while Sheftell’s Daily News piece stated that “Bolla handled every detail of the restoration and marketing, practically living on site for two years.”
In April, Bolla told the website Curbed that he’s “developed a brand and concept” with the “Chelsea Mansion,” as he’s marketing 436 West 20th Street. Curbed reported that “Bolla says he’s working on acquiring other properties that will get the full-on Chelsea Mansion makeover” and “hinted that he’s looking at other houses in the Chelsea neighborhood . . .” Community Board 4, the Historic Districts Council, the Landmarks Commission and the Department of Buildings should take note. With 436 West 20th Street, Bolla has built a reputation as a man to watch.
A July 18th New York Post article by Annie Karni, “The End of Internet Anonymity,” describes how Bolla “filed court papers that would force the web hosting company of Architakes.com to unmask the blogger’s identity. . . . information that might lay the groundwork for a civil lawsuit to seek monetary damages.” She quotes Bolla as saying ArchiTakes’ “anonymous claims were dead wrong and misinformed.”
ArchiTakes stands by its statements and its right to anonymity, not as a screen to throw stones over, but as a bulkhead against reprisal by the well-connected and unscrupulous. A safe harbor for free speech, anonymity is as American as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, published anonymously in 1776. While ArchiTakes is primarily concerned with design ideas, it has also – from its very first post – put the light of day on powerful parties who think they can get away with preservation abuses unnoticed. Anonymity has been crucial to this public-interest role, particularly in encouraging disclosure of information from third party sources.
Bolla’s lawyer, Jason Gabbard, tries to claim his own share of victory from the Post article. His firm’s website notes: “Commentators and scholars alike have been calling for an end to Internet anonymity for years now. . . . [W]hen loose and careless tongues have access to such a powerful means of publishing and disseminating information, it can serve as a recipe for disaster. Consider the case of our client, Michael Bolla. The NY Post featured Mr. Bolla’s case recently in their Sunday edition. . . .” Gabbard cites another case in which the petitioner, “like Mr. Bolla, was successful in persuading the court to pull the mask off the anonymous pen.” (Would someone please send this man a copy of The Elements of Style?) Gabbard preaches: “Surfing anonymously is one thing. Maliciously destroying another person’s reputation from your arm chair with zero accountability is another.”
Before getting entirely carried away with himself, Gabbard should remember that his recent court victory was against a web host that gave up our personal identifying information without a fight, and that we weren’t even in the courtroom to defend ourselves. Hostmonster, ArchiTakes (now former) web host, shut us down without warning. Perhaps it was the threat wielded by Gabbard that our post about his client was “a clear recipe for disaster,” a phrase he seems to like. It didn’t matter that the content he objected to was a matter of public record.
Anyone counting on the internet to be a forum for unintimidated free speech should know it’s not a sure bet.
UPDATE: The day after this piece was posted, Jason Gabbard, lawyer for Michael Bolla, tweeted on his firm website that the author of ArchiTakes “is at it again. our firm is in process of drafting defamation suit against him”
One would certainly hope so. Gabbard, after all, represented to the court that the purpose of his petition seeking our identity was to bring an action for defamation. He and Bolla cited no authority giving them rights to our identity except to do so. The Court ordered our former web host to give up our personal identifying information “on the ground that such disclosure is necessary for Petitoner to be able to serve a summons and complaint . . .”
So far, Gabbard and Bolla have used their court action to get press attention, claim victory, and attempt to intimidate ArchiTakes’ new web host, to whom Gabbard recently wrote: ”I doubt the $5-$10 [ArchiTakes] pays you each month is meaningful to your company. If not, I’d suggest you quash this site immediately and avoid potential liabilities that may flow from you hosting this site.” To show he meant business, Gabbard attached a copy of the Court Order he obtained – at public expense, it should be noted. This Order was issued to enable his client to bring a court action for defamation against the author of ArchiTakes. As of yet, in his and his client’s hands it has only been used as a club to bully our new web host into “quashing” free speech.
More on 436 West 20th Street:
Buying Michael Bolla’s Chelsea Mansion for Dummies – October 19, 2012
Where is Michael Bolla’s Lawsuit? – March 1, 2011
The Seamy Side of 436 West 20th Street – October 7, 2010
436 West 20th Street Rises Above the Law – March 18, 2010