San Francisco Art Studios (Literally) Under Water
When I was composing my story for Part One of this recent series about renting art studios in San Francisco, I found that my first location was being offered as apartments!
So I reached the others who also rented from the famous Melvin Belli — known as the “King of Torts”
Melvin Belli was a prominent American lawyer known as “The King of Torts”. He had many celebrity clients, including Zsa Zsa Gabor, Errol Flynn, Chuck Berry, Muhammad Ali, the Rolling Stones, Jim Bakker and Tammy Faye Bakker, Martha Mitchell, Lana Turner, Tony Curtis, and Mae West. He won over USD $600,000,000 in judgments during his legal career. (source: inkwellmanagement)
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I wrote to Thom LaPerle, to see if he knew of the update of our old offices:
5/30/22, 2:02 PM Email to Thom LaPerle
Who else could I send this to?
Who would be shocked to see our studios as apartments?
This website shows inside courtyard windows only.
Wonder what the rents are. (?)
How is everything up north?
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On 6/6/22 10:56 AM, Thom La Perle wrote:
Hi Ann… sorry I’m sooooooooo late with this reply.
Yikes, yes that’s my old office space.
In February of 1970, I leased a small space in the Belli Building overlooking the south side of the courtyard, and then added/leased an additional larger space on the east end of the courtyard over Mel’s reception office. Janet Jones occupied the small space at the west end overlooking the courtyard and was across the hall from your previous location.
In late 1979, Belli wanted my entire space for expansion and offered to buyout my lease. I was reluctant to relocate, but every week someone from his office would come upstairs and offer me an additional $10k to move. Finally, I was forced to hire a real estate advisor to determine my costs for relocating and setting up a new office. Regretfully, I finally accepted $50k and moved to space above Swiss Ski Sports on Clay Street, across from the other side of the Pyramid… ugh!
Up until 2017, I was coming down to the SFBA 2 – 3 times a year for family, friends and industry get-togethers and would usually be in The City for one of those occasions. I always made an effort to tour the old Jackson Square area, and I would always be disappointed in the on-going demise of the familiar businesses and the boarded-up Belli Building…everything seemed dead or dying.
On a Friday morning in 2015, during one of these neighborhood stopovers, I rounded the corner of Jackson and Montgomery streets and was shocked to see that the barricading around the Belli building had been removed and construction was in progress. I was lucky enough to meetup with the project supervisor who told be the renovation was nearly complete with apartments upstairs and retail downstairs… and, an open house party was planned for “tomorrow night”, Saturday (lack of time prevented me from attending). I wasn’t allowed to go into the building during the construction, but I could see into the courtyard and it was void and painted engineering green. Geez, what a depressing feeling.
Regarding your query of the unit’s price, in the Apartments.com link that you sent to me, there is a “Frequently Asked Questions” section that states the “starting” (?) price is $4,350 for the space. Also, I phoned the number listed thinking that I might be able to talk with a listing agent… nope, I got a phone message asking me to leave a message. I think the voice on that message was Nancy Ho, Mel’s last wife, who was a developer of several SF properties prior to her marriage to Belli.
Ann, thanks for the “heads-up” on the status of the Belli Building… it brings back great memories and some fun times.
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On Jun 6, 2022, at 3:45 PM, I wrote:
Hi Thom,?I’m thinking (if it is OK) to send both of our letters on to Janet Jones. I forgot to reach her when writing to you and Dick Burns.?I have just written a “Part One” for Geezers’ Gallery that tells a little about the Belli Buildings, just a little because I plan to tell about each location where I have freelanced.?
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On 6/7/22 1:44 PM, Thom La Perle wrote:
And, “yes”, it is fine with me if you want to post/forward our correspondence… there is no classified information there.
Regarding the windows shown in the ad photos, it looks like they may have reconfigured them from the originals in the remodeling process. When I was there, there were eight smaller windows side by side across the south courtyard wall. I’ve included some photos below of my space showing some of the north facing windows overlooking the courtyard from the south side wall. I wouldn’t doubt if they replaced the entire south wall over the courtyard because the brick mortar in the walls was bad and sifting out… every morning we would have to dust and wipe-down our drawing tables and other table top surfaces that faced that wall.
Sometimes it was more than just mortar dust that we cleaned up, there would be small bits of brick. When I was remodeling the larger space, we were opening up the ceiling and found two large beams spanning the width of the building that had slipped out of their brick wall slots on the north wall over the Belli reception office. That happened just before Belli bought-out my lease. After we moved in late 1979, they brought in a large crane to Hotaling alley and refitted and reinforced the beams.
A high school buddy of mine was a foreman in the steel fabrication and installation business and was heavily involved in the reinforcement of many downtown pre-earthquake buildings…yeah, he was the one putting up all those ugly steel crisscrossing I‑beams. He told me that the steel work made the buildings safer, but not safe.
Ann, look forward to your “Part One” GG coverage of your SF freelance “nesting” spots.
Best to you guys, Thom
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6/9/22 5:14 PM I wrote to Janet Jones
Thom LaPerle and I have been writing about the days at the Belli Building.
We both felt that you might like to read our memories of 722 – 728 Montgomery Street.
I hope all is going well for you.
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On 6/9/22 5:25 PM, Janet Jones wrote:
Hi Ann and Thom
Here’s a little more from my old office there. Belli was notorious for not paying bills, and insisted on patching instead of replacing the entire roof. Then when it still leaked he refused to pay for the patching and eventually no roofer would work for him. There was a huge downpour lasting several days toward the end of my tenancy, and the inside of my office, the inside of the wall adjacent to the courtyard bulged several inches as it filled with water. There were several other leaks in the ceiling, and then the wall burst. All my books were destroyed, the drawers of my flat file filled with water, and the rug a swamp. Luckily I had Valuable Papers insurance, thanks to my insurance broker husband, so I closed the door one last time, took the money, bought an etching press and never looked back.
Greetings to all,
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6/10/2022 2:10 PM I wrote to Janet.
Your Belli story tops Thom’s or mine!
GREAT TO HEAR FROM YOU!
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6/10/22, 5:26 PM I wrote to Thom.
Janet’s story tops ours in Belli Building woes!
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6/12/22, 11:26 AM Thom wrote.
Wow, that’s awful. That must have happened just after we moved because our back space was adjacent to Janet’s office and we would have experienced some of the same issues. Sometimes we could hear water drops on our false ceiling because of the extreme distance between the roof and the ceiling. A couple of times we’d get a small wet “balloon” shape in the ceiling, but nothing leaked through.
The more I reflect on my stay in the BB, the more I realize how unsafe the building was, especially when I saw the two beams that had slipped out of their cradles in the north wall during our renovation of the additional office space that I leased.
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You can see Janet Jone’s website at the column at the right, listed under Artist’s Sites.
In May of 1965, I had sub-rented from lettering artist, Bill Hyde, on the third floor of Belli’s second building which was accessed through the great iron gate and attractive courtyard / garden area.
BTW: Bill let me use one of the drawing tables that he acquired when the BH & H partnership broke up. I show these, that I found on-line, the older must be the Nestler brand. i show the Nestler, newer model, to show how the board could be easily lifted up to a flat surface, so that the artist could stand at the board, working from all sides. It was the best board for my needs. When I left the Belli Building, I then had a pedestal type board. To raise it, I had to rotate the board (clear of any objects around it) and then lift it, then to lock it at that height, I needed to turn it back to its original direction. (Not easy).
Also, who took photos in those days? (Thom La Perle) I show a sketch of Bill’s studio. The additional view of the north wall shows what must be a home-made Camera Obscura / Lucida. Bill had it moved up to the third floor from the Butte, Herrero & Hyde location on the 2nd floor of 722 Montgomery. It was draped to keep out the light of the studio. I used it constantly, but I never analyzed its working parts. There was a wheel to turn to bring the tacked image closer and farther from the lens that would revert the image which would then be reflected downward.
(On-line, I cannot find an example where one sits and where the image falls directly onto the artist’s drawing / painting surface.
Melvin Belli provided no heating in the building. We were in a cold, wet studio in the winter. We dressed warmly, plugged in heaters at our feet and when Bill Hyde bought an old Franklin Stove, we fired it up, but that gave little heat because the roof / ceiling was twice the height of that in a normal room. Coffee cans to catch the leaks was part of my early art studio training.
Every renter knew Belli to be a “cheap-skate” when it came to fixing up his rentals, but at Christmas time there was a treat for his staff and renters.
As a sub-renter, I was included in the exclusive Xmas Party held in the basements area. Pisco Punch was served, and I was of drinking age.
When I was working at the Building Building, my mother told me that Grandpa, John Tammi (naturalized: John Seaman), had the very young Melvin Belli represent him in a case where Grandpa was hurt on a ship where he worked as a winch-driver loading lumber on and off of ships along the California coast. (I don’t know if he won the case.)