When Renovation Meets Litigation
-- And the Trash Piles Up

By Lisa Crovo

On a sleepy block of Jackson Square, the former vice-saturated Barbary Coast turned upscale antique district dotted with tony restaurants and hipper-then-thou design firms, a city landmark stands vacant. Where lush ivy once clung to brick, evoking images of elite prep school dormitories, now gang tags and hip hop posters litter the façade. The once graceful inner courtyard is strewn with trash. Piles of rubble tower among exposed beams and holes gape through the ceiling and floors. A homeless encampment clutters the doorway. Above, a plaque declares the troubled building, the "Birthplace of Freemasonry in California, historical landmark No. 408."

The Belli Building at 722-724 Montgomery St. once housed the law firm founded by legendary Melvin "King of Torts" Belli, a courtroom genius and one of San Francisco's most flamboyant characters.

Belli died bankrupt in July, 1996, leaving behind hundreds of unfinished cases, some worth millions to his clients and their lawyers.

In life, the ostentatious Belli blazed trails in the legal profession by expanding the rights of ordinary people to sue the rich and powerful, including corporations, doctors and insurance companies. His client roster read like a celebrity gossip column. As a criminal and civil attorney he represented Errol Flynn, Lenny Bruce, Mae West, Sirhan Sirhan, the Rolling Stones and Jack Ruby among many other notables.

Belli's most significant contribution to the law was developing the technique of "demonstrative evidence," which changed the face of the modern civil courtroom. This technique, chronicled in his highly regarded textbook Modern Trials, introduced the use of gory and graphic evidence and expert witnesses to win multimillion dollar lawsuits. Always on the precipice of controversy, Belli's theory both fascinated the throngs of law students who crowded courtrooms to watch him at work, while repulsing and infuriating more conservative and conventional attorneys of the time.

Even from the grave, Belli continues sparking contention and lawsuits. In a bitter, nasty and very public conflict, Belli's long-estranged son and former law partner, Caesar, and Belli's sixth wife, Nancy Ho Belli, began battling over control of the famed attorney's legacy and estate, which includes the Montgomery St. properties.

Dueling wills, public slander and a demand for a homicide investigation made headlines in the months following Belli's death. Ultimately, the landmark buildings landed in the hands of Nancy Ho Belli, Belli's wife of 14 weeks, but not without a price. In February 1997, the San Francisco Bankruptcy Court accepted an offer of $915,00 from the widow, who vowed to turn the venerable structure into a museum commemorating the life of her celebrated husband. Her intent was to restore Belli's sanctum to the way it looked when the attorney was alive -- filled with memorabilia from notorious cases, photos of famous clients, books and tokens from his travels around the world.

A dedication ceremony of the Melvin M. Belli Museum, attended by Mayor Willie Brown, a corps of reporters and others, took place several months later. Unfortunately, most attendees were left to observe the museum site from the safety of the sidewalk. Due to extensive damage resulting from the 1989 earthquake, the building is in need of complete seismic upgrading. Mrs. Belli led a small group of reporters, donning hard hats, through the cavernous space -- after all, who would want to risk a lawsuit?

Tricia James, administrative director of the Melvin M. Belli Foundation, directed the onlookers instead to visit the "virtual museum" online at www.mbelli.org, during the proposed 18-month restoration period. But two years later, the foundation's link is as lifeless as the Montgomery street buildings.

These days, Nancy Belli's battles aren’t being waged against her stepson; in fact their relationship seems cordially civilized. Rather, in May of this year, the widow Belli filed a "complaint to abate a nuisance and for damages" with the State Superior Court against Claude Perasso and the Clotilde Perasso Trust, who owns an adjoining building that shares a common "party wall". While the Perasso building next door buzzes with the energy and activity of a no-holds-barred renovation, the Belli building stands vacant, waiting for a trial date to hasten its potential upgrade.

Essentially, Nancy Belli is asserting that the Perasso Trust has held up her plans for the seismic retrofit by wrongfully modifying the interior of their building allegedly without the proper permits, thus weakening the party wall and increasing the possibility of the failure of the common wall.

"My hands are tied," Mrs. Belli ranted in a recent interview. "I have a construction crew ready and standing by, but someone out there is trying to bankrupt me. They (sic) took the website down; it's a conspiracy!"

Somewhere, from the beyond, Mel Belli is grinning, knowing it couldn't have been any other way.

(Though, the Belli Foundation’s website remains mysteriously defunct, a virtual tour of the old Belli offices is available.)