Although the landmarked Richmond Hill Republican Club building was auctioned last Friday, the former boss of Manhattan’s Republican organization has vowed to take advantage of an option that a Queens judge left open to him to annul the winning bid and purchase the property.
At a March 16 meeting with a Richmond Hill Republican Club representative and representatives from a firm contracted by the city to collect the almost $600,000 tax lien on the property, Supreme Court Judge Duane Hart postponed that morning’s scheduled auction of the lot and granted the club four weeks to find either a lessee or pay the city.
That the club had neither settled with the city nor produced a signed lease by Friday prompted the auction of the abandoned building in the Sutphin Boulevard courthouse. But less than 30 minutes before the auction began, club representative Joseph Kasper, standing in front of Hart’s bench with a cellular phone in hand, told the judge that a friend of the club was prepared to wire $100,000 into an established escrow account. The deposit, made by James Ortenzio, the former chairman of the New York Republican County Committee, displayed his legitimate interest in keeping the 99-year-old building off the auction block, Kasper said.
After a court-appointed referee spoke to Ortenzio, calling from Newark Airport in New Jersey, and confirmed Ortenzio’s intention, Hart granted Ortenzio until July 13 to pay the balance of the lien and annul the winning bid.
In the courthouse’s auction room, four bidders made offers on the property that rose in $10,000 increments. A $740,000 bid eventually won. Though the winning bidder would not identify himself and declined comment on his plans for the property, Ortenzio said five days after the auction that he has every intention of paying the balance the city is due.
Ortenzio had expressed interest in purchasing the property two years ago with a partner, only to then not follow up because of the building’s dilapidated condition. But he said that after receiving a call from Kasper two weeks ago, he “searched himself ethically” and decided to purchase the property.
Ortenzio, who once ran the Hudson River Park Trust, a group charged with the design, construction and operation of the five-mile Hudson River Park on Manhattan’s west side, said that he would consider leasing the Republican Club building to either a bank or an insurance company, among other options.
Because of its landmark status, destroying the building and redeveloping the lot is not an option for whoever eventually compensates the city. A $2 million renovation project, without which the building cannot be reopened, must be completed without altering the building’s Colonial Revival style exterior. Had such restrictions not existed on the building, it would have sold for over $1.5 million, according to an estimate made by Hart in March.
At that meeting last month, Councilman Dennis Gallagher (R-Middle Village) told Hart that he, along with Councilwoman Melinda Katz (D-Forest Hills), would petition the City Council to purchase the property and turn it into a community center. Gallagher’s proposal and Kasper’s revelation that an unidentified bidder had expressed interest in the property resulted in the postponement of the auction until Friday.
But according to Jake LaSala, Gallagher’s representative at the hearing last week, neither Gallagher nor Katz could garner the momentum necessary to have their proposal seriously debated by the council.
Though the city is now out of the running for the building, if Ortenzio does purchase the property, he said that he will work closely with elected officials in planning the building’s future. He also vowed to work closely with the Richmond Hill Historical Society, a group of area preservationists that has closely monitored hearings regarding the building. “There will be no surprises here,” he said.
The downtown Richmond Hill building was a civic and community center for decades until its abandonment in the mid-1980s. In addition to hosting parades, public lectures, picnics, dances and dinners, it was a post office and a dormitory for World War I and World War II soldiers on leave. The building was visited by several sitting and campaigning presidents, including Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.