Tower of Ambition

The security guard’s tone was polite but firm, with the slightest hint of menace. “Excuse me, do you know where you’re going?” She was a stout woman, and there was a hint of a bulge beneath her blue blazer. (A walkie-talkie? Better not ask.)

This wasn’t the U.N. It was the green marbled lobby of Carnegie Hall Tower, at 152 West 57th Street, where the guards stand sentry in front of a security desk. Why so vigilant? A computerized directory on the wall says film and television executive Barry Diller has offices there. So does former Viacom and HBO chief executive Frank Biondi. Music-industry power broker Allen Grubman is on the 30th floor. Jerry Seinfeld is in negotiations to lease the 55th floor.

The diligent security detail is part of the package. Carnegie Hall Tower is the kind of office building where a certain type of millionaire–the kind who winters on Parrot Cay, skis in Aspen, lives in the Dakota–runs a private business in plain sight. It’s heavy on people in the entertainment business, Manhattan arrivistes and those attempting to reinvent themselves in the Second Act of their lives. They require the public’s attention, while claiming that they just want to be left alone.

Bill Clinton will fit right in.

At least, that’s been the verdict ever since it leaked a couple of weeks ago that the ex-President was close to a deal to lease the 56th floor of the 60-story tower, at the tippy-top-of-the-market rent of around $90 a square foot. “That building fits him like a glove,” said one real estate broker. “It’s a building for currently successful scoundrels …. You have to have the money, but it’s not really high-class.”

Others who know the building say it’s a lot of fun: the type of place where you’ll see Mr. Diller milling around the lobby, and where you used to run into Tina Brown barefoot in the elevator, or mistakenly find Eddie Murphy’s magazines in your mail.

For all its star power, Carnegie Hall Tower has lived a fairly anonymous existence until recently. Then Mr. Clinton came along looking for office space, making news from Chattanooga to Des Moines, and Carnegie Hall Tower is famous. And it has started to act that way. Steve Morrows, the executive who manages the building for Rockrose Development Corporation, agreed to give a tour of the building for this story. But on Jan. 26, Mr. Morrows curtly explained that the tour was off. “We have a P.R. agent now,” he explained.

The owners of Carnegie Hall Tower had pulled a Denise Rich: They’ve hired Howard Rubenstein to deal with the building’s sudden stardom. “It’s just not the right time” for a story about the building, explained Steve Solomon of Rubenstein Associates. Mr. Clinton had yet to sign his lease, and there was no guarantee he would. The building, he said, would rather be left alone.

So why the P.R. guy? Because Carnegie Hall Tower has attained a certain critical mass of celebrity, said Billy Cohen, the Newmark Company broker hired to fill it when it opened in 1991. “Just riding through the elevators, it’s a very happening space,” said Mr. Cohen, who stocked it with an eccentric roster of machers , movie stars and media executives. Then, “it was totally a lemmings thing. And it’s still going on today,” he said. “That’s what sucked Clinton in.”

There’s Mr. Diller at USA Networks’ offices on the 42nd floor. Erstwhile entertainment executive Frank Biondi is now a venture capitalist on 46. Stanley Jaffe, producer of The Accused , is on 52. Director Robert ( Kramer vs. Kramer ) Benton is on 26. Mr. Grubman, whose law firm represents everyone from Madonna to Bruce Springsteen, is on 30 and 31. Then there’s Mr. Seinfeld, who wants the space right downstairs from the President, on 55.

Representing the new economy is Mr. Case and Bob Pittman of AOL, who, a source familiar with the tenant roster said, have private offices on the 27th floor. Swinging hedge-fund manager Mark Kingdon is on 50, and there are a half-dozen venture capital firms.

There is also the obligatory assortment of filthy-rich foreigners. A billionaire Saudi family, the Juffalis, are on the 58th floor. Nathaniel Rothschild, the handsome scion recently named the second-richest noble under 30 by The Observer of London, is a hedge-fund manager at Atticus Capital, on the 45th floor.

It’s an impressive assortment of names, despite the fact that Carnegie Hall Tower came on the market in the midst of one of the toughest real estate markets in memory. Carnegie Hall had allowed Rockrose to build the tower, which also contains rehearsal space, in exchange for around $75 million in rent over 25 years. It was built without an anchor tenant. Though architect Cesar Pelli’s design won raves, the building was strangely skinny–just 500,000 square feet spread over 60 stories. At a time when other new buildings stood empty and developers were going belly-up, Mr. Cohen lured his real estate friends to the building by holding his son’s briss on the then-empty 60th floor. (The ploy worked–developer Steve Rosenberg still occupies that space.)

Mr. Cohen targeted fashion designers for the lower floors, entertainment companies upstairs and, on top, “pivotal power brokers.” The building had straight-on, unobstructed northern views, a location near the entertainment meccas and, often, just one office per floor to accommodate egos.

On a conference call, Mr. Cohen and Mitchell Arkin, a Cushman & Wakefield executive who worked for Rockrose when Carnegie Hall Tower went up, reeled off notable tenants: “Marvin Traub, who was the chairman of Bloomingdale’s …” Mr. Arkin began. “His toilet looked out over the park!”

The Wathne sisters from Iceland–Thorunn, Berge and Soffia–took space for their fashion company on the 48th and 49th floors. “They weren’t [triplets], but they all dressed alike,” Mr. Cohen said.

“They had three little white dogs,” said Mr. Arkin. “We were always afraid the elevators were going to crush the mutts.”

Eddie Murphy leased space on the 47th floor. “Murphy came in in disguise,” Mr. Cohen said. “He didn’t want anyone to know he was in the building.” He installed a shower, a bar and a screening room, then left the building a couple of years ago, but not before his cover was thoroughly blown when staffers of Talk magazine–another former tenant–began mistakenly receiving his copy of Variety .

One assistant said that last month, she received a phone bill addressed to “Natalie Merchant.”

People in the building affect disinterest, though they remember these incidents in vivid detail. One executive said she’d just seen

Barry Diller in the lobby “waiting for whoever, no big deal.” She also recalled the night, when Talk was still on the 55th and 56th floors, she found Tina Brown in the elevator “standing in her stocking feet with her Manolos in her hand.” Another time, when Kenneth Cole had space in the tower, she ran into him “with one of those scooters–he commuted to work on one of those!”

Mr. Arkin had his own story. “I get a call from the front desk,” he remembered. “They said, ‘We got a guy here, he’s a bum, but he says he’s Bob Dylan.’” Mr. Arkin rushed down. “The guy was getting on the elevator… I saw him and I said, ‘That was Dylan!’”

Not surprisingly, the building has become a hotbed for rumors–that Chris Rock, Arsenio Hall, Sidney Pollack or even Martha Stewart are tenants. (She’s not.) One tenant said: “I think Spin magazine is here. And maybe a record label or recording studio, because there are rappers in here all the time.”

These days, all the rumors are about Bill Clinton. “I understand that President Clinton wanted [music-industry executive Stephen Swid's] space because it was beautifully outfitted,” said Daryl Roth, who is producing Wit and Proof , and has had offices on the 21st floor for six years. “But [Swid]‘s not moving!”

For all the excitement–after all, the entertainment business opened its hearts and wallets wide for the Clintons–many tenants worry that their new neighbor and his security detail will ruin things at Carnegie Hall Tower. “I wouldn’t say I’m looking forward to it,” Ms. Roth said. “I would say that I think it’s fascinating.”

Mr. Seinfeld fell in love with the building’s views before the President did, but that won’t alter his plans, said the comedian’s publicist, Elizabeth Clark, since “he’s a huge Clinton fan.”

Mr. Swid, sitting at a desk in his 57th-floor offices with his back to a panoramic window overlooking Central Park, said, “I can understand why the President chose [this building].” A former co-owner of Spin (hence the rumor) who now buys music libraries, he conceded that there is some uneasiness about having Mr. Clinton in the building. “I think some people are excited and some are not,” he said. “There are people who are more personally oriented than community-oriented.”

Mr. Swid counts himself in the latter group. He gave money to Mr. Clinton’s re-election, attended one of those famous White House coffees and proudly hangs a picture of himself and Bill Clinton on his wall. He said Mr. Clinton did come in and look around his offices before settling on Talk ‘s old space. Mr. Swid said the landlord offered him some money to move out before his lease was up.

He had considered leaving before, but won’t now. “I benefited under his leadership,” Mr. Swid said. “Where this President is, I like to be.”

Still, he’ll play it cool. “It would be presumptuous of me to go down and see the President,” he said. “If the President wanted to come up and say hi to me, I would be honored.”