Battle Belli

The international soap opera that surrounds the crumbling San Francisco landmark that was center stage for the incomparable "King of Torts," Melvin Belli

On the Jackson Square end of Montgomery Street, which is to say, the quieter end, sits an old wreck of a building that looks like it has been gutted by some tragic disaster. The place might fade completely into the landscape were it not for some clues to past importance around the outside. A sign on the brick reads "The Birthplace of Freemasonry in California," and identifies the building as Historical Landmark No. 408. And there's the torn gray and white striped awning, more Manhattan than Masonic, stretching out from the front door to the street. Just above it, gold letters on the side of the building read: "Law Offices of Belli, Belli & Belli."

Fliers and advertisements litter the plywood that's been erected around the building's exterior, but you can peek through windows and see that the place is a block deep, and has a courtyard inside. City historians report that what now is a single wreck of a structure was originally two buildings, dating back to the 1850s. The Langerman's Building was a tobacco warehouse before it became the Melodeon Theater during the Gold Rush; among its featured performers was a singer named Lotta Crabtree. After that, it was an auction house and a Turkish bath. The other half of the current structure was a place called the Genella Building, where one Joseph Genella operated a china and glass business. Later, the Odd Fellows made it their meeting hall.

But in 1959, famed San Francisco attorney Melvin Belli restored and joined both structures into one, and since then it's been the Belli Building, and nothing else. For three decades, the place was awash in Belli, from the crystal chandeliers and red velvet drapes inside to the pink blooms on the geraniums in the black flower boxes without. For much of the past four decades, the interior décor was a work in progress. There were apothecary jars from Belli's grandmother's drugstore and masks from Katmandu. Certificates from bar associations hung amid menus and hotel keys. Roll-top desks from the early days of Bank of America and Wells Fargo sat among a joke coat of arms that bore the words "Rex Tortious" and featured crutches and dollar signs in its corners, and a statue of a Swiss Madonna, wearing an ostrich plume from South Africa. The building was vintage Belli, and a regular stop for Greyline tour buses. (Belli's own office was behind the front window, in order that he might see and be seen.)

Upstairs, five long windows face out on Montgomery Street. Belli's small cannon was parked in one, from which the barrister would fire a round and raise the Jolly Roger flag whenever the firm won a big case. If the place looks old and tired, well, it's seen a lot of action. And it's likely to see a lot more.

Following the bankruptcy and subsequent death of Melvin Belli in 1996, and amid a plethora of lawsuits among his heirs and law partners, the Belli Building is now in the possession of Nancy Ho Belli, the sixth wife of Melvin. And it's a mess. The place hasn't been occupied since city officials declared it unsafe following the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 -- the unreinforced masonry was in danger of crumbling -- and now looks a bit like a strong wind might knock it down.

In 1997, the widow Belli threw a groundbreaking ceremony -- attended by the mayor, no less -- for the launch of her renovation of the building, which was to be turned into a Belli museum. Part of the roof was torn off, but that's about all the hard-hat work that's gotten done.

Plenty of legal work has started, though. Nancy is suing the neighbors, including San Francisco Superior Court Judge Claude Perasso, for allegedly damaging a common wall during the renovation of their adjacent building, another commercial office space. A deputy city attorney who represents the Department of Building Inspection is threatening to sue Nancy, who happens to be a member of the city's Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board, for letting her landmark rot by, among other things, leaving it topless during winter storms. More distant neighbors -- particularly, a group of some political standing known as the Telegraph Hill Dwellers -- have complained loudly to the city about the state of the building. And as the building rots and the legal fees mount, the examiner for Belli's bankruptcy estate is trying to persuade a judge that Nancy obtained the property fraudulently, and therefore doesn't even legally own it.

But to understand the complex struggle over the Belli Building requires a map of sorts, one that leads from the building itself through several major law firms and almost every court of law in San Francisco, into neighborhoods in Pacific Heights, Sausalito, and Sonora, on to heirs in London, Romania, and Mexico, and assets in Switzerland and the Philippines -- and back again.

In death, Melvin Belli, the "King of Torts," created a microeconomy of the law. The marathon of courtroom combat that began with a bankruptcy six months before Belli went to his final reward has, in one way or another, employed nearly 150 lawyers in three countries. The cost of this tangled set of disputes is impossible to estimate from the public record, but easily exceeds $3 million.

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