The starting point of Isabell’s fascination with real estate was probably the house he bought on Minetta Lane in 1990. It was a dump: a three-story building with a carriage house in the rear. But he liked the gritty location—although his clients were white-bread and upper crust, his own taste in culture ran more to hip-hop and salsa, and his taste in men to the type who played ball at the fenced-in court around the corner on Sixth Avenue—and he was taken with the idea of transforming the place.
“We were there the first night he got it,” Donald Kaufman says. “Literally, Robert, my wife, and I started the demo ourselves, with sledgehammers, taking out walls. That’s how he did everything: instant action. Then, after a lot of walls were knocked out, he brought in an engineer. They looked around. The guy said, ‘I’ve got some ideas, but we’re going to talk about it out on the street.’ ”
The house he created (after some structural stabilization) was not cozy and domestic; there was no kitchen. Instead, it was like an Isabell party, in which you moved from one space to the next, encountering different magical environments. He connected the front and rear buildings with a glassed-over atrium, 65 feet high, which he filled with bamboo and palms, and spanned with a floating staircase that could be lit with votive candles. Kaufman remembers visiting one night and hearing a funny sound: It was a team of Tibetan-born sherpas from Brooklyn, enlarging the basement by hand-chipping the walls.
That same year, Isabell installed his business in a small building on West 13th Street that he purchased for $975,000. Admiring how his friend Schrager evolved from a disco owner to a hotel designer and real-estate developer, he tried for many years to develop the property. In 2006, he bought the mirror-image property to the south on Little West 12th Street for $7.5 million, so he could build out the block and lease high-end retail and office space in a new building. The neighborhood had been designated a historic district in 2003, which meant he needed—and won—the approval of the landmarks commission.
Isabell was transfixed by the game. “I’m getting bored,” he told his architect, Suben, as the project neared completion. “I have to look for more property.” What he found was 837 Washington Street, a run-down building that was one door up from the old Mineshaft, shuttered long ago. Envisioning a studio building for photographers and event designers, Isabell told Suben that the meatpacking district was the only recession-proof neighborhood in the city.
He bought 837 Washington for a mind-boggling $45 million last year, at the peak of the market. He planned to build a 50,000-square-foot structure on the site, but again was dependent on the landmarks commission’s approving his plans. “I told him, ‘If Landmarks doesn’t give you what you want, there’s no nice way to put this, Robert, you’re screwed,’ ” Suben recalls. “He said, ‘It’s not going to happen.’ ”
Over the last decade, Isabell found an unconventional soul mate in Rachel “Bunny” Lambert Mellon. A close friend of Jackie Kennedy who redesigned the Rose Garden of the White House in 1963, Mellon is an heiress to the Warner-Lambert pharmaceutical fortune and the widow of philanthropist Paul Mellon. Isabell first met her at Caroline Kennedy’s wedding, and their friendship deepened after Paul’s death in 1999.
They shared a love of flowers (she has one of the largest gardening libraries in private hands), but their relationship quickly branched out. They spoke twice a day. “His way of looking at everything was completely unique,” says Mellon, who is 99. “He would come down here to the country, two or three times a month, with armfuls of flowers. He was elusive and very, very attractive.” For her 90th birthday, he surprised her with a party at her house on Cape Cod. In a field of wildflowers he placed an enormous four-poster bed with curtains blowing in the wind and pillows all around for people to sit. At the edge of the woods he hid an orchestra.
Friends were bemused, bored, or delighted when Isabell would natter on rapturously about Mellon’s 2,000-acre Virginia farm. She is a charming paragon of old-money style and a fount of horticultural knowledge; to be welcomed into her circle of intimates was a signal achievement for a high-school graduate who hailed from the wrong side of Duluth. Isabell planned to build himself a house on her property and some day help run her horticultural foundation. In his will, after some bequests to friends and relatives, he left everything to the foundation.
As a scheme for his future, the Virginia plan was more auspicious than his real-estate predicament back in New York. He and Suben made multiple approaches to the landmarks commission, seeking approval first to tear down the existing two-story building at 837 Washington, then to preserve it and add four stories of glass and ivy-covered steel on top. Landmarks demurred each time. In March, the head of the commission informally indicated that they would permit nothing higher than a four-story building on the site.
Isabell was facing an August 1 deadline to repay a $48 million loan—at 20 percent interest—or he could lose all his property. He had no tenants for 410 West 13th Street, and rents in the city were slipping. Even though he had been soliciting party business abroad, from the royal family in Saudi Arabia and the casino-owning Lawrence Ho in Macau, among others, he watched as budgets for many of his New York clients shriveled.
Suben says that despite “signs of stress from time to time” that caused “little flare-ups,” Isabell maintained an outward cheer. A week before his death, pink and white impatiens appeared as if by magic one afternoon to blanket the metal canopy of 837 Washington. “We had gone to a meeting out on Long Island, and he came back and put that up, maybe because the High Line was going up and he wanted people to have something pretty to look at,” says Joe Heffernan, Isabell’s second-in-command. It was a final characteristic gesture of gratuitous beauty. Although he couldn’t add four stories to his building, no one would stop him from festooning it with flowers.