San Francisco Landmarks

San Francisco Landmark #9: Belli Building Genella Building and Belli Building
19 October 2002

Every time it rains, Sarah Stocking says, she fears the two buildings that housed flamboyant lawyer Melvin Belli's offices will crumble into a heap of Gold Rush-era debris.

Of immediate concern, Stocking said, is the disintegration of the late Melvin Belli's two adjoining landmark buildings. A Superior Court judge is scheduled today to take up City Attorney Louise Renne's lawsuit against Belli's widow, Nancy Ho Belli, who is a member of the city's landmarks board, to force repairs of the structure.

Mark Slavin, Renne's spokesman, said, "We'll be asking the court to order (Belli) to take immediate safety measures. The physical state of the building is so dilapidated it poses danger to people on the sidewalk."

From Efforts to Preserve Historic Area: Historic Character of S.F.'s Jackson Square Under Siege by Gerald D. Adams in The San Francisco Chronicle, 18 December 2001
(Click Photo to Zoom)

San Francisco Landmark #9
Belli Building
722 Montgomery Street Between Washington and Jackson
Built 1851

The following is adapted from the San Francisco City Planning Commission Resolution No. 6274 dated October 3, 1968:

Originally built in 1849 or 1850 and destroyed by fire in 1851, the Belli Building was immediately rebuilt, using the old walls and foundations. The building is built upon the original raft of planks, six to eight inches thick and to a depth of eight feet laid as a foundation in the mud of what was then Yerba Buena Cove. It is said that the tides still rise and fall in the elevator shaft.

The building was first known as Langerman's Tobacco and Segar Warehouse then the Melodeon Theatre where Lotta Crabtree performed. The stage door was in the alley to the rear. Tunnels, which are now blocked off, led to buildings across the alley.

After the theater, tenants in the 1860's included commission merchants and an auctioneer. In the early 1870's the building housed a Turkish bath. In the 1880's a medical establishment, using hydrotherapy, continued to operate the baths. From the 1920's onward it was used as a paper warehouse and also as a garment factory.

In 1959, the building was acquired by Melvin Belli and converted to law offices for his firm. The chief alterations were decorative: plaster covering brick was removed; a cast iron frame running around the top and sides of some windows was exposed, and a wrought iron gate from New Orleans was added.

The heavy cast iron pillars on the façade are also said to have come from New Orleans as part original building. The interior columns are thought to be ship's masts. Some of the heavy ceiling beams are originals. The floors are double, and between upper and lower planks on each, they are fireproofed with sand or with terra cotta.

The brick of the walls is of two types: a hard-fired one thought to have been brought round the Horn from New York; the other, soft-fired and made in Sacramento. There is an open courtyard between this building and the adjacent one, also owned by Mr. Belli. Shutters on the building are now wooden, replacing the original iron ones.

The Belli Building has been vacant since it was damaged in the Loma Prieta Earthquake on 17 October 1989.

Melvin Belli was known as the King of Torts for his success in litigating notorious personal injury cases. He represented Sirhan Sirhan who assassinated Robert Kennedy, and Jack Ruby who murdered Lee Harvey Oswald. Other clients included Errol Flynn, Ferdinand Marcos, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Errol Flynn, Chuck Berry, Muhammad Ali, the Rolling Stones, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Martha Mitchell, Lana Turner, Tony Curtis, and Mae West.

After winning a court case, Belli would raise a Jolly Roger flag over his office building and fire a cannon, mounted on his office roof, to announce the victory and the impending party.

Belli married six times and divorced five times.

His marriage to his fifth wife, Lia Georgia Triff, ended with a colorful divorce proceeding in 1988, in which Belli was fined for calling his wife "El Trampo" and accusing her of throwing their pet dog off the Golden Gate Bridge.

In 1996, Lia Triff married Paul-Phillipe Hohenzollern, Prince Paul of Romania, in Bucharest.

On 29 March of the same year, Belli married his sixth wife, Nancy Ho.

Three months later on 9 July 1996, Belli died at the age of 88.

The Belli Building is in the Jackson Square Historic District.

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