At 7:30 a.m. on the morning of July 10, real-estate broker Mark Baum noticed a new e-mail on his BlackBerry inbox. Subject: bartha bartha.
It was from one of his oldest clients, Dr. Nicholas Bartha, the 66-year-old doctor who owned the four-story townhouse at 34 East 62nd Street that exploded in flames and fell to the ground an hour after Mr. Baum saw the message.
Mr. Baum had spoken to Dr. Bartha just a few months earlier about possibly selling his residence, the end result of a nasty divorce. And although Mr. Baum noticed an attachment—with the tiny BlackBerry screen—he assumed it could wait until he got to the office to be opened.
At the time of the explosion, Mr. Baum was out walking his dogs near his house in the East 80’s; upon returning home, he flipped on the television and saw images of an inferno.
It was then that Mr. Baum heard the reporter announce the address where the explosion supposedly occurred: 32 East 62nd Street.
“I looked [at the television] and said that it wasn’t 32; it was 34,” said Mr. Baum, a vice president at Prudential Douglas Elliman. “Then I ran to my home computer and looked what the hell he wrote. I didn’t even read the whole thing. I saw the people it was sent to.”
At around 9 a.m., despite not yet finishing the lengthy screed, Mr. Baum called 911 and calmly informed the police that he believed it wasn’t a terrorist attack, and that he had information that could possibly help in the relief effort—including the building’s floor plans.
Roughly 30 to 40 minutes later, according to Mr. Baum, the police arrived—one from the homicide, the other from the bomb squad. They looked at his computer, read the e-mail and asked questions.
No doubt this paragraph, directed at Dr. Bartha’s ex-wife, was part of the reason they were so interested in Mr. Baum’s e-mail:
“When you read this lines your life will change forever. You deserve it. You will be transformed from gold digger to ash and rubbish digger. You always wanted me to sell the house I always told you ‘I will leave the house only if I am dead.’ You ridiculed me. You should have taken it seriously” [sic].
“He’s written this stuff to me before,” said Mr. Baum, who once received an e-mail of approximately seven pages. “He’s written this type of history of his life to me in the past. But not that he’s going to bury in the building.”
He headed off with the police to the Prudential Douglas Elliman office at 575 Madison Avenue, where his work computer was also examined. Later, Mr. Baum was questioned by the assistant district attorney and detectives, who asked him if Dr. Bartha—who was pulled from the rubble gravely injured and taken to New York–Presbyterian/Weill Cornell hospital—would be willing to talk to his real-estate broker. “Absolutely, he would talk to me,” replied Mr. Baum.
Flames continued to engulf the now-razed landmark brownstone situated in the Upper East Side Historic District, near some of Manhattan’s most expensive residences. Across the street was the Hermès flagship store, as well as billionaire Ronald Perelman’s offices.
Dr. Bartha’s home was also reportedly the site of a bit of history: Confidants of President Franklin D. Roosevelt—including Vincent Astor, Nelson Doubleday and Kermit Roosevelt—met in a place called “The Room.” Located upstairs, this particular room had a gold-leaf ceiling and a fireplace.
“You could feel the history in that room,” said Mr. Baum, who mentioned that in addition to discussing secret intelligence issues, the distinguished group also played a lot of cards.
For Dr. Bartha, who had lived in the 19th-century home since 1986 (although he’d purchased it six years earlier), there was a high level of attachment. “He would not have sold it unless he absolutely had to,” said Mr. Baum. But after a messy divorce proceeding, and owing a reported $4 million to his ex-wife, he wouldn’t have a choice. Incidentally, Mr. Baum estimated the townhouse as being worth $6.2 million.
While the doctor and his broker didn’t go out for dinner or do much socializing, the two had a cordial business relationship, built over six years of Mr. Baum renting out apartments in the building for Dr. Bartha.
And though he’s cooperating with police, who are reportedly focusing their investigation on Dr. Bartha, Mr. Baum still isn’t 100 percent convinced.
“The coincidences would leave you to believe ‘yes,’” said Mr. Baum. “I’m not saying he did it; I’m not saying he didn’t do it. But he was very despondent.”
Mr. Baum recalled that Dr. Bartha had had problems with gas over the years.
On one occasion, while Dr. Bartha was working at the hospital, Mr. Baum had to let in the new tenants—and there were problems.
“The new tenants that moved in that weekend had trouble with the hot water,” recalled Mr. Baum. “I had to get that boiler started. There was water on the oil, [so] that it wasn’t firing up. [Dr. Bartha] gave me the step-by-step instructions on what to do.”
Reportedly, investigators now believe that a gas line was tampered with shortly before the explosion.
Whether that was Dr. Bartha—and, if it was, whether he intended this massive disaster—Mr. Baum still isn’t sure.
“He might have tried to hurt himself, but he would never hurt anybody,” said Mr. Baum.
Lachlan Murdoch Sells on Spring Street
When Lachlan Murdoch resigned from News Corp. last summer, he gave up the prospect of inheriting his father Rupert Murdoch’s vast media empire—and returned to its capital, Sydney, Australia.
But career plans weren’t the only ones upended after the very public filial split: There were also his ambitious renovation plans to turn an enormous five-story brick building at 11 Spring Street into “what would have been the best family home in New York City,” as he put it recently in an Australian newspaper. It certainly would have been big: the former horse stables have a total of 14,000 square feet.
But now, with New York behind him, the junior Murdoch is selling the building to developer Mona Gora, several real-estate sources told The Observer.
On July 7, The Observer’s daily Web site, The Real Estate, reported that the massive building had gone to contract, but did not report the identity of the buyer.
And while broker Brooks Nicholson of the Corcoran Group confirmed that a deal was struck in late June, he declined to elaborate further.
Mr. Murdoch spent $5.25 million to buy the building in 2003, and was asking $14.99 million for it when Ms. Gora bought it—but we’ll have to wait for city records to confirm how much she actually paid. Ms. Gora probably didn’t fork over the full asking price, and in fact initially offered Mr. Murdoch less than $10 million to take the place off his hands in March, according to a source with knowledge of the deal.
The building was long a neighborhood enigma, because one electric candle glowed every night, between swaths of white curtain, in every one of its 60-plus windows. Downtowners mystified by the building’s apparent abandonment—particularly since every other old warehouse building in the neighborhood had long been snapped up for retooling into luxury condos—were shocked when Mr. Murdoch bought the building as a single-family residence.
“Lachlan and his wife came in and loved it,” remembered Larry Michaels, a vice-president at Prudential Douglas Elliman. On that sale, Mr. Michaels was both the listing broker and represented Mr. Murdoch.
Beginning in December 2003, Mr. Murdoch spent an estimated $1.095 million on renovations, according to the building permits filed in the city. The last permits were filed a few days after July 28, 2005—the day after Mr. Murdoch e-mailed employees to inform them that he was resigning.
Ms. Gora likely has different plans. Although she has several developments out in Westchester, Ms. Gora is best known in the city for the Karl Fischer–designed Chelsea Club, a 42-unit luxury condominium on West 19th Street.
On that project, Ms. Gora worked alongside partner Joseph Klaynberg, both principals of MoeJoe Developers.
Now it looks like she’s going it alone: A spokesperson for Mr. Klaynberg told The Observer that Ms. Gora was developing the Spring Street building without him.
Murdoch père and fils both worked with broker Deborah Grubman, of the Corcoran Group, who sold the Spring Street building with Carol Cohen and Mr. Nicholson as well as Rupert Murdoch’s Soho triplex last year (to fashion mogul Elie Tahari.)
Ms. Gora didn’t return calls for comment.