In January 1914, The Times reported that Mr. Carrington and the bondholders had reached a deal to sell the property to an unknown buyer for $2.2 million in January 1914. “In part payment,” Bell transferred ownership of Philipse Manor to Carrington and his associates. (Carrington did not hold on to all of Philipse Manor for long. The Times reported in May 1915 that the 303 Fifth Avenue Corporation sold a 17-acre plot overlooking the Hudson River to the Chevrolet Motor Company.)
THE BELL FAMILY HAS owned the 100-year-old 303 Fifth Avenue for all but five years of its history. “It was difficult in the 1930s,” Nicholas Bell said. “We were having trouble paying the mortgage. It’s been up and down since then.”
Mr. Bell, who like his great-grandfather is based in England, flirted with the idea of working with a local partner to renovate the building in 2000, but ultimately chose not to. “If we’d gone with a developer, he might have wanted to increase borrowing and do the construction very quickly,” he said. “A lot of local investors wanted to be incentived and wanted an equity interest. We had had two other equity investors in the past, and, in one case, it had led to litigation.”
The case ultimately settled and the Bell family bought out its former partners.
The slump in the early 1990s also took its toll as well, and, since January, the property has suffered from the latest downturn.
Occupancy at 303 Fifth has dropped 12 percent from last year, when the building was 100 percent leased, according to leasing manager Richard Chieffo. The building has always catered to smaller tenants, in the 400- to 700-square-foot range, though the initial popularity with fashion and design companies that earned it the nickname the Jewelry Building has lately given way to a more buttoned-up roster of law and accounting firms.
The 200 current tenants pay an average of $38 a square foot, Mr. Chieffo said, and leasing activity has started to pick up in the past few weeks. “I know there are a lot of buildings in the city that are sitting on 25- to 30-percent-vacant units, but we’re holding up at 12 percent.”