The Real Deal New York

This month in real estate history

The Real Deal looks back at some of New York's biggest real estate stories

January 01, 2012
By Adam Pincus

Ella Wendel

1988: Cuomo goes after corruption in building industry

Governor Mario Cuomo announced the formation of a group of more than 100 investigators, prosecutors, auditors and other professionals to battle corruption and racketeering in the building industry, 24 years ago this month.

Along with city officials, Cuomo created the Construction Industry Strike Force because of the allegedly endemic nature of mob infiltration and corruption in New York City’s multibillion-dollar development business.The task force included professionals from the State Organized Crime Task Force and from the office of Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau. Cuomo said in the first year he would direct $4 million to hire 60 additional investigators and staffers to tackle the corruption.

The task force is still active, and took part in the investigation that led to the DA’s raid of Lehr Construction’s Manhattan offices in March 2010. In May last year, the DA brought charges against four Lehr executives for allegedly overcharging for construction work.

1962: Mormons buy land later used by Solow

The Mormon Church bought four low-rise commercial properties facing the Plaza Hotel 50 years ago this month. The properties were later acquired by developer Sheldon Solow for his luxury office tower 9 West 57th Street, and were at the heart of a $3 million lawsuit the church brought against Solow.

Officially known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormons paid $1.25 million for the four four- and five-story properties at 10-20 West 58th Streets, between Fifth and Sixth avenues.

The church planned to build a 30- to 40-story building that would include a chapel, administrative offices and an auditorium, as well as additional office space or apartments that would be rented out.

At the time, the church estimated there were 3,000 Mormons in the metro area.

However, by 1968 church officials had agreed to transfer their ownership in the four properties, as well as adjacent 11 West 57th Street, to Solow in exchange for 40,000 square feet of space, including a chapel, in Solow’s future tower at 9 West 57th. But they never moved in, and in 1977, four years after the building was completed, the church sued Solow, seeking $3 million in damages, claiming he fraudulently took the land without providing the chapel. It was unclear how the dispute was resolved.

1933: Thousands rejected as heirs to a fortune

A Manhattan surrogate court judge threw out the claims made by 2,302 people 79 years ago this month that they should inherit a piece of a vast New York City real estate fortune owned by the wealthy but low-profile Wendel family.

The judge’s action cleared the way for the bulk of the $36 million family property fortune — which included the 22-story 525 Seventh Avenue, the 23-story 1385 Broadway, and scores of other buildings around the city and East Coast — to be given to charities, following the 1931 death of the last remaining family member, Ella Virginia von Echtzel Wendel.

The $31 million valuation for the 161 New York City, Westchester and Long Island properties was substantial, although less than the $60 million holdings of William Waldorf Astor when he died in 1919.

The Wendel estate grew over three generations, in part because its founder, fur trader John Wendel, told his son John D. Wendel to “Buy, never sell, New York real estate.”

By 1914, the bulk of the estate was held by John D. Wendel’s son, John Gottlieb Wendel. He died that year and passed the fortune on to his sisters, five of whom reportedly never wed, partly because of his efforts to keep them single in order to keep the estate whole.

The vast bulk of the estate was turned over to charities. But in June 1933, $2 million was given to nine distant relatives. That same year, one person, Thomas Patrick Morris, was sent to prison for falsely claiming to be the son of John Gottlieb Wendel. Compiled by Adam Pincus

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