By Roslyn Lo
Growing up in Saddle River, N.J., a young Michael Bolla would idle away the hours wandering through the empty mansions whose neighbors included former President Richard Nixon and his wife, Pat, or perhaps novelist Mary Higgins Clark.
“After school, I would often get on my bicycle and ride around town going into the houses that were left open by contractors who would never lock them up,” said Bolla. “It was my first introduction to serious architecture – these were 30,000 to 40,000 s/f mansions. It was those influences that absolutely inspired me to have a career in real estate and design.”
A successful real estate developer and historical restoration expert, Bolla recently tilted back towards brokerage when he closed his boutique Luxury Lofts and Homes and took his listings to Prudential Douglas Elliman. But he hasn’t given up design – this week, he was named as one of the heads of the new Elliman Equity Design, along with former professor Carl Black.
He told the New York Times it was the giant firm’s ability to handle some of the large developments coming to his listings that prompted the move.
“If you have a 120-unit development on a small guy’s website, it will crash,” Bolla told the paper.
As a managing director at Elliman, Bolla said his expertise and the company’s resources are a perfect match. He has listed several Upper East Side properties, including townhouses at 407 East 75th Street and 358 East 69th Street, ranging from $4.5 to $10.5 million, and continues to develop properties.
Most recently, his transformation of the historic property at 436 West 20th Street into the Chelsea Mansion has been the headline maker.
A restored 11,000 s/f building with state-of-the-art technologies, Bolla managed to keep all of the home’s original details intact. Within a few months of completion, the building gained international recognition and is now occupied by a bevy of wealthy Europeans, a fact that has drawn both scrutiny and acclaim to the high-profile address.
For many, the Chelsea Mansion is the toast of the town. The 185-year-old Federal style building was originally constructed for a wealthy merchant. Today, it consists of five rental apartments, which can be rented on a short-term basis for upwards of $15,000 per month.
Much has been written about Bolla’s painstaking attention to detail — the mansion boasts 1920s Baccarat crystal chandeliers, restored ceiling medallions, grand mahogany doors and floorboards that were found by a rare wood seeker (and discovered in a Pennsylvania barn) to match the mansion’s original wood floors.
Furniture was hand-selected and upholstered, and antiques from his favorite furniture company, George Smith, fill the halls.
A final touch was a butler, seamstress and psychic, all hired for the premises, keeping Bolla, his guests and residents sufficiently entertained.
With a grandfather in the steel business, Bolla said building has always been part of his life. “My grandfather took me to see many sights as a child; I would watch as they built towers.”
His broad travel experiences also stimulated his eye for detail. “Since a young age, I have been fortunate to travel the world and see many different places.
“The places that have had the greatest impact are Paris and Venezia. There is no question if you see anything I’ve worked on that there is always something that comes out that is inspired by what I have experienced in Paris and Venice. I have a profound love for both; I have built a wonderful circle friends in both cities and find them be two of the most interesting places outside of New York.”
When he ventured out into the world at 18, Bolla’s first job was in the design department at Bloomingdales where he helped co-ordinate lighting and furnishing.
After earning a BA in Finance and Holocaust studies at Baruch College, he moved onto Columbia University for a Masters in Architecture then decided then to audit classes at both Cooper Union and Columbia and tailor-made his program around his interests.
By the age of 21, Bolla had purchased his first property at 16 East 94th Street in Carnegie Hill. Since then, his name has been attached to dozens of developments and an endless stream of celebrity names and high ticket transactions.
While serving as sales director for Luxury Lofts & Homes, he worked with Heidi Klum, Jennifer Aniston, Isabella Rossellini, Amar’e Stoudemire, Denzel Washington, and others.
Often recognized for his quirky personality, Bolla has an impressive resume that few can match. He has developed a reputation for being a perfectionist in his field and is consistently retained by developers and designers for consultation services.
Accumulating a unique portfolio, Bolla worked on developments on the Upper East Side, Lower East Side, SoHo, TriBeCa and Chelsea.
His work marketing The Forward Building put him on the Lower East Side radar. In three short months, Bolla sold out all 30 units.
The 175 East Broadway property was home to the first Jewish Newspaper in the United States during the turn of the 19th Century. It sat empty for many years and is now a luxury condominium in which almost all of the original residences have remained since the conversion. There is a personal significance tied to the project, as Bolla himself is a devout Kabbalist.
He maintains extremely strong roots in the spiritual community in New York through his charitable and religious practices.
But bold risks have shaped him into a strong and well respected member of the real estate community. At his core, he said, his works is always driven by aesthetics. “I am an extremely visual person,” he said. “I notice a symmetry and imbalance in a space immediately and can often determine how to correct the problem.”