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

Two things are clear in the tangled web of the Belli estate. The Belli Building was one of Melvin Belli's prized possessions, and his widow, Nancy Ho Belli, wanted it.

Nancy first met Melvin Belli in 1981 on the steps of the courthouse in Orlando, Fla. Belli was there for a trial, and Ho, who was a law student at the time, decided she'd like to meet the great barrister.

She eventually came to San Francisco and, for a brief time, worked as a lawyer in the Belli Building. After inheriting substantial wealth from her parents in Singapore, Nancy left the law for a career in real estate investment, and in 1992 created Pacific Bay Holding Co. Inc. For a time, Nancy, a longtime member of the city's Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board, was the regular companion of San Francisco newspaper columnist Warren Hinckle. But she always remained friends with Belli. Toward the end of his life, friendship became romance, and then marital bliss. Nancy loaned Belli several thousand dollars before and after his bankruptcy, to pay employees and expenses. An increasingly ill Belli moved into Nancy's Marina District home when they married March 29, 1996. Belli died 15 weeks later, on July 9, 1996.

In the interim, Nancy took heat from Caesar and Gretchen Belli, who essentially accused the new bride of gold-digging. Nancy had taken Belli to Mexico seeking experimental cancer treatment, and threw in a "mini-facelift" while she was there, which only fueled the claims of her enemies.

Battle Belli was well under way, and the Belli Building remained at the center, even though it had not been occupied since the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. The trail of the building's ownership is, at best, an odd series of events.

When Melia settled with her father over the money from her trust fund, she gave Belli a deed returning her half of the building to "Melvin M. Belli or his assignee"; the deed was signed April 21, 1995. Apparently, Belli did nothing with it.

Several months later, Nancy sent over another deed to Melia's attorney, for her to sign. This deed transferred Melia's half of the property directly to "Nancy Ho." An accompanying letter stated that Nancy was Belli's designee, and these were his wishes. Melia signed the new deed on Oct. 26, 1995, and it was recorded about a week later.

A month thereafter, Belli filed bankruptcy, and Caesar followed shortly afterward.

Caesar owned the other half of the building, which made it, by this time, an asset in his bankruptcy. Caesar's bankruptcy was converted into a Chapter 7 liquidation in 1997. Home Savings and a scaffolding company, both of which had claims against the property, were about to foreclose. After a great deal of legal haggling, Nancy purchased Caesar's half of the building from his bankruptcy estate for $457,000, which included paying off some of the liens that had accumulated against the property. So, by mid-1997, Nancy owned the Belli Building in total.

The press was filled with plans for a Belli museum following the groundbreaking ceremony for the building's restoration. Nancy announced plans to renovate the place -- an estimate put the cost of the work at $3 million -- and fill it with Belli memorabilia for permanent display. For a time, there was even a Web site with a virtual tour. The restoration efforts never matched the press buildup.

Instead, Nancy has fought with neighbors. Last May, she sued International Settlement Holdings Corp. and a trust fund administered by Judge Claude Perasso, owners of property adjoining the Belli Building. In her suit, Nancy alleged that the neighbors weakened a common wall between the buildings during their own renovation work in 1993, keeping her contractors from using the common wall. Complicating things in a manner befitting a Belli lawsuit, a city building inspector issued a permit for the work Perasso and partners did in November 1992, ostensibly making it legal ... until another inspector issued a notice of violation of city building regulations in March 1999.

Last November, a compromise was reached that basically calls for Perasso's side to strengthen the common wall. In turn, Nancy's side would construct a new wall next to it, essentially separating the two buildings.

But another disagreement -- this one over engineering specifications for strengthening the wall -- has ensued. The drama continues to unfold in San Francisco Superior Court.

At the same time, the City Attorney's Office is keeping tabs on the Belli Building, which remains on the municipal radar because the building, a national landmark, has spawned a decade of city building code violations. Also, a North Beach neighborhood group known as the Telegraph Hill Dwellers has vowed to keep the heat on. There's history here: A few years back, Nancy, a member of the city's Landmarks Board, tore down a 1906 cable car gripman's cottage in Russian Hill, to clear the way for the construction of condominiums. Neighborhood activists fought a losing battle against the demolition -- the cottage did not have landmark designation and so was not protected.

And now, apparently, there is some question about whether Nancy Ho really intends to gut the Belli Building. Paul Matzger, Nancy's attorney, says the widow plans to tear the building down, except for the Montgomery Street facade, and reconstruct the place as it was when Belli was there. The first floor near the street would be a museum of Belli memorabilia, and the rest of the building would be commercial office space.

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