Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Most Expensive Eviction in NYC History: Hotel Hermit Got $17 Million to Move

In 2004, developers Will and Arthur Zeckendorf bought the famed Mayflower Hotel and several adjacent lots on the Upper West Side for just over $400 million, with the goal of creating the city’s most exclusive residential building — 15 Central Park West. Only one thing stood in their way: A 73-year-old recluse named Herb Sukenik, who refused to move from the hotel. In this excerpt from his new book, House of Outrageous Fortune: Fifteen Central Park West, the World's Most Powerful Address (Altria Books), author Michael Gross reveals the most expensive eviction in New York City history.

After buying the Mayflower Hotel, the Zeckendorf brothers were legally responsible for buying out and even relocating those living in rent-controlled apartments in the top floors — residents whose leases prevented them from being evicted.

They turned to Michael Grabow, a relocation lawyer, “to get the last four bachelors out,” he says. “They’d been there 30 to 35 years each, in tiny little rooms.”

One was 98 and had relatives in Mexico.

“After 35 years, he checks out with a single suitcase,” Will Zeckendorf says.

“Plus a million-dollar check,” Arthur Zeckendorf adds, laughing grimly.

The second, an aging show-business agent, also in his 90s, accepted a similar sum and disappeared.

A third went by the name David Jordan, but the developers were shocked to discover when the deal was signed that his real name was Arthur MacArthur IV — the son of World War II Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
Born in Manila in 1938, Arthur IV appeared four years later on the cover of Life magazine, while his father was running the Pacific war theater.

After that, Arthur lived with his parents at the exclusive Waldorf Towers on Park Avenue but dropped from sight following his father’s death in 1964.

Spooked by fans of his father, Arthur lived in seclusion. He used the Mayflower money to buy a $650,000 condominium a few blocks away. It was the first and last time his name appeared in public records as an adult.

Then, things got complicated.


“Herbert Sukenik’s profile was a nightmare,” says Will Zeckendorf. “Hugely intelligent, a Ph.D., unmarried, embittered, a loner, disconnected from society, and too smart for his own good. He was not a poor man; he had independent means.”

Sukenik had lived for about 30 years atop the Mayflower, two flights of stairs above its highest elevator landing. His tiny room had “mold growing up the walls,” says Will.

He sounded as if he’d be easy to please.

“I don’t want money,” he told the developers. “I just want a new apartment with a park view.”

Herbert J. Sukenik was born in The Bronx in 1930. His father’s brother was the Israeli archaeologist who first recognized the importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Herbert’s father, conversely, was a pharmacist who’d been arrested and found guilty in the 1950s for selling amphetamines without prescriptions.

Herbie breezed thought Cornell University in just three years, earning a physics degree. He went on to get a master’s in physics, a Ph.D. in physics and an M.D. After a stint at the General Electric Research laboratory, he was named chief of space medicine at Martin Company’s Space Systems Division.

Sukenik never married but from college onward stayed in touch with Irwin Shapiro, now an astrophysicist at Harvard. They’d been frat brothers at Cornell. Shapiro called Sukenik annually.

“He never called me,” says Shapiro, who thinks his friend had issues. “His father was a strange, strange man. A total mute. In another world.”

In the mid-1960s, Sukenik moved East to work at Massachusetts General Hospital, where he played a role in its earliest installation of computers.

“He took a job that was far beneath him,” Shapiro says. “He was angry at the world, but, I thought, angry at his father.”

In August 1974, Sukenik moved to Manhattan and a room at the Mayflower Hotel.

“He was very reclusive,” says a younger relative, Herbert Chirlin. Sukenik sometimes worked as a school doctor, but, Shapiro thinks, he finally took to his room and rarely left.


Herbert Sukenik, here as a teen, lived in seclusion at the Mayflower Hotel.

Sukenik was 73 when he met Michael Grabow in that 350-square-foot room, which had a kitchenette, a bathroom, four exposures and fabulous views of Central Park and both the East and Hudson rivers. But its windows were so filthy those views could barely be seen.

He shared the place with 30 years of scientific journals.

It was “a wreck, a mess,” Grabow says. “Clothes everywhere. Papers, magazines, two computers. He had to clear chairs to sit on.”

The Mayflower’s last holdout was short and balding with a wild fringe of gray hair and the “old-man smell” of someone who “didn’t shower much,” Grabow says. “He was clearly brilliant.”

“I wasted my life,” the embittered Sukenik told Grabow. His father had died while he was finishing his medical degree and left him enough money that he didn’t have to work.

“I could have been at the heart of research into CAT scans and MRIs,” Sukenik said. “Instead, I’ve been up here 30 years doing crossword puzzles.”

Grabow learned Sukenik was universally disliked by the Mayflower staff. He never let anyone into his room to clean, even though he was entitled to maid service. “He was a bitcher, a complainer,” says a former Mayflower manager.

“He had fun with me,” Grabow says. “He had a nice time beating me up.”

Sukenik knew the precise acreage of his block and how much the Zeckendorfs had paid. He’d calculated the taxes, insurance and carrying costs of the empty properties and recited them all to Grabow.

And he wouldn’t begin negotiations until his three fellow tenants were gone. “He knew the last man standing was very valuable.”

His key demand had been a park view, so a broker took him to Essex House on Central Park South and showed him a 2,200-square-foot, two-bedroom unit on the 16th floor.

“It looks like a bed of green,” he rhapsodized, staring out at Central Park beneath him. Grabow sent Sukenik a letter spelling out their agreement: The Zeckendorfs would buy the condo and retain ownership, but he could have it for life and they would even furnish it for him.

The one demand they refused was free meals twice a week at the Essex House restaurant, then run by the world-renowned chef Alain Ducasse.

Sukenik’s response to the letter was silence. “Which was not like him,” Grabow says.


Then, David Rozenholc, a noted tenants’ attorney, called Grabow, and the moment he started talking, it was clear things had changed. Rozenholc told Grabow that Sukenik wanted more than the apartment and moving expenses. A lot more. Grabow hung up and called Sukenik.

“I thought we had a deal,” he said.

“We didn’t,” Sukenik replied, “and now I have a lawyer.”

He went on to confirm that he did now want money — even though he had no use for it, no kids, no charitable impulse, and didn’t want to leave it to his brother.

The Zeckendorfs decided to play hardball. They separated the two halves of the building lobby and began demolishing the southern end.

Sukenik’s response? “Oh, I love to watch construction.”

Jackhammers began pounding away for hours a day.
“I love the noise,” he said.

The Zeckendorfs served Sukenik with papers setting in motion the multiyear demolition-related eviction process they’d hoped to avoid.

“Finally, it had all come down to a simple question: Where’s the cash?” Will recalls. “This is just a break-the-phone moment. We’ve got a 52,000-square-foot property with one tenant.”

The Zeckendorfs turned to a third lawyer who knew Rozenholc. “And finally, we get a number, which is enough to break another phone.”

But at last they had a deal.

Fortunately, during Sukenik’s extended silence, they’d bought the Essex House condo, which set them back $2 million. They won’t reveal the additional sum they finally paid Sukenik; Will says only that it was “by far the highest price ever paid to [relocate] a single tenant in the city of New York.”

It was $17 million, according to someone with knowledge of the transaction.

In return, Sukenik promised to pay the Zeckendorfs $1 a month in rent.

“As a joke,” Rozenholc, who got a third of the settlement, says he gave them a check for $120 for the first 10 years and added a clause to the final agreement requiring them to return a prorated amount if Sukenik died in that time.

The first wrecking ball hit the Mayflower two days after Michael Grabow delivered Sukenik’s check.
The building that replaced the hotel, 15 CPW, became one of the most exclusive addresses in the city, with residents from A-Rod to Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein.

Despite his riches, Sukenik lived as a shut-in in his new Essex House apartment until his death at age 80 in January 2011.

Despite his wishes, his estate, valued at $9.8 million, went to his brother.

David Rozenholc can’t recall if the Zeckendorfs ever returned the $48 overpayment on the rent for the Essex House condo. But he spoke to Herb Sukenik several times before he died.

“He seemed . . .” Rozenholc starts, then pauses. “He had no complaints, but he should have been happier. But some people who should be happy may not be.”

Copyright © 2014 by Idee Fixe Ltd. From the forthcoming book House of Outrageous Fortune: Fifteen Central Park West, the World's Most Powerful Address by Michael Gross, to be published by Atria Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster Inc by Michael Gross, to be published by Atria Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster Inc by Michael Gross, to be published by Atria Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster Inc

1 comment:

  1. If the city had bought the building, he would have been out on his ear or in jail (with a flurry of news stories about how it was for his and the public's own good)..