The Real Deal New York

This month in real estate history

March 31, 2010
By Adam Pincus

1988: Real estate tycoons Harry and Leona Helmsley indicted on tax charges

One of the leading commercial real estate figures in New York City, Harry Helmsley, along with his wife and business partner Leona, were charged in a 47-count federal indictment 22 years ago this month that clouded his reputation in the waning years of his life.

Harry, a respected dealmaker estimated at his peak to be the owner of or have interests in $5 billion in real estate assets, and Leona, who was a top residential broker before they married in 1972, were accused of disguising $4 million in upgrades to their Greenwich mansion as business expenses. The couple was also charged in New York State Supreme Court the same month on similar allegations.

The indictment stemmed from disgruntled employees and contractors for Helmsley companies who turned over incriminating documents to the New York Post. The paper wrote a series of articles about sham billing at the estate, Dunnellen Hall, which led to the federal and state investigations.

At the time of the indictment, the Helmsleys had shares in the Empire State Building, the Graybar Building at 420 Lexington Avenue and the Helmsley Palace Hotel, now known as the New York Palace Hotel, at 455 Madison Avenue. By 1988, Leona had taken over a substantial portion of day-to-day operations at Helmsley Enterprises.

Harry never faced jail time, due to ill health. In June 1989, a judge ruled he suffered from memory lapses and was incompetent to stand trial, so although the charges were never dropped, the case never moved forward. He died at the age of 87 in 1997.

Leona was ultimately convicted in August 1989 of evading $1.2 million in federal income taxes, as well as mail fraud and filing false tax returns. She began her four-year sentence in April 1992, and completed it under curfew at her Midtown penthouse apartment at the Helmsley Park Lane. She died in 2007 at the age of 87.

1956: Coliseum at Columbus Circle opens

With 300,000 square feet of showroom space, the New York Coliseum at Columbus Circle was the largest structure in the world built just for exhibitions when it opened 54 years ago this month.

The bland but functional Coliseum consisted of a six-story exhibition and convention hall adjacent to a 20-story office building. Both were built together by controversial city planner Robert Moses’ Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority as part of the Columbus Circle urban redevelopment project.

But as trade shows rapidly expanded, the center began losing out to bigger venues, and in 1979, just over two decades after its inauguration, plans for the 1.8 million-square-foot Jacob K. Javits Convention Center on the West Side were announced to the press.

The Coliseum closed in 1986, with the inauguration of the Javits Center on West 34th Street and the West Side Highway. In 1998, the Related Companies and Time Warner struck a deal to buy the site for $345 million. They demolished the Coliseum in 2000 to make way for the dual towers of the mixed-use high-rise known as the Time Warner Center, completed in 2004.

1921: Record lease price for holdout parcel abutting Macy’s

A candy manufacturer paid what was believed at the time to be a record price to lease the property at the corner of Broadway and 34th Street, adjacent to the massive R.H. Macy & Co. department store in Herald Square, 89 years ago this month.

The six-story building, which representatives from Macy’s had sought to acquire in 1902, was owned by a rival clothier who outfoxed the department store to win the location almost two decades earlier.

Confectioner George Loft agreed to lease the 1,250-square-foot plot at 1313 Broadway for $75,000 to $100,000 per year, considered in press reports to be a record for the Herald Square district.

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