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Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The explosion

House That Blew Up Was a Dream and Then a Nightmare

The graceful town house on East 62nd Street was more than a home to Nicholas Bartha. It was the culmination of his life’s work, proof that he had realized the classic immigrant’s dream.

Dr. Bartha, burned and barely conscious, was pulled from the ruins yesterday morning after the house was nearly leveled by a gas explosion, raining bricks on one of the city’s wealthiest streets and sending up thick columns of black smoke. Even before the fires were extinguished, police began focusing on Dr. Bartha as the most likely person to have caused the blast.

Just as his historic town house, a landmark used more than half a century ago by American spies, was no ordinary building, Dr. Bartha, 66, was embroiled in a marital split that by all accounts was no ordinary divorce. But he would have done anything to keep that house, including stay married, his lawyer said.

He lost one key battle last year when a court ruled that his wife deserved a share of the building, a decision he fought.

Then, in April, he was ordered to sell it so he could pay his wife more than $4 million. In court papers, she said he had repeatedly vowed in ominous tones that he would die in that house and that she would never get it.

Now there is no house.

“He wanted to stay married,” said Ira E. Garr, Dr. Bartha’s lawyer until last year. “He wanted to maintain the status quo so he could continue to live in this house,” he said, adding, “He wanted nothing other than to remain in this house for the rest of his life.”

Dr. Bartha was Romanian, and met his wife, Cordula Hahn, a native of the Netherlands, in 1973. He was studying medicine at the University of Rome, and she had just earned a doctorate in German literature. In 1974, they moved to the United States, and lived with Dr. Bartha’s parents in Rego Park, Queens.

Ms. Hahn took a job in the cultural section with the Netherlands Consulate General in New York while he studied for and passed exams enabling him to practice medicine in the United States. The couple were married early in 1977 and soon after had two daughters, Serena and Johanna. His wife stayed home to raise the children while he worked in hospital emergency rooms, where he developed a reputation for being a dour man with a gruff bedside manner.

“He only talked about work, a workaholic doctor,” said Dr. Paul Mantia, who shared an office with Dr. Bartha.

In 1980, Dr. Bartha first saw what would prove to be the love of his life, the four-story town house at 34 East 62nd Street, between Park and Madison Avenues.

According to divorce papers, he and his parents, Ethel and John Bartha, bought the house for $395,000, after cobbling together $199,699 in cash. Dr. Bartha, his young family and his parents moved into the house in 1986.

Dr. Bartha’s joy over the purchase was intense and immediate, Mr. Garr said. For him, it symbolized validation, proof of success.

“He told me, ‘I stood at the corner of 59th Street and Fifth Avenue and looked north, and said, “This is it. This is where I want to live the rest of my life,” ’ ” Mr. Garr said.

Dr. Bartha may have found his dream house, but his home life was far from idyllic.

As he worked, he grew increasingly estranged from his wife and daughters, his lawyer said. Silence pervaded the home. “There was two years of noncommunication,” Mr. Garr said. “They were like two ships in the night.”

In October 2001, his wife, who has resumed the use of her family name, filed for divorce and moved with her daughters to a small apartment in Washington Heights.

The divorce papers described a bizarre, markedly unhappy home life. Dr. Bartha put up “swastika-adorned articles” around the house, according to a court decision, “intentionally traumatizing” her because she is of Jewish descent and was born in “Nazi-occupied” Holland. Dr. Bartha became enraged when she took them down, according to the papers, which also said he ignored his wife as she was treated for breast cancer.

A judge granted her the divorce. He was ordered to pay $1.23 million, plus alimony of $2,000 per month for three years. But the referee in the case held that the couple’s home, then valued at $5 million, was not marital property and that Ms. Hahn had no claim to the home.

Then Dr. Bartha appealed the decision, a move that would ultimately cost him his house. He wanted to stay married, and would have had to sell or mortgage the house to pay the $1.2 million the court said he owed.

“He didn’t love her,” Mr. Garr said. “He was emotionally and constitutionally opposed to divorce. He was a man who worked all the time and couldn’t stand being alone.”

Early in 2005, the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court held that the town house was marital property. It was an unusual decision that the New York Law Journal noted on its front page, partly because the appellate court determined that the home was community property “regardless of the form in which the title is held.”

When I talked to Jen about this, she said two things:

One, her greatest fear is a house fire, and of course, the building across the street had one last night.

Two: This will make someone's career. The land is worth far more than the house, more than the $20m on Osama's head. There is an Hermes store down the block, and it was next to the Browning School. Even after a settlement, the wife could get millions. But the people affected will, of course, all get lawyers from New York's white shoe law firms. Jen said this could go on for a decade.

Three: Reform of New York's divorce laws are inevitable after this.

posted by Steve @ 2:53:00 AM

2:53:00 AM

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