Inside the checkered history of the real-life buildings that inspired the splendor and scandal of the Arconia from 'Only Murders in the Building'

·8 min read
The Belnord on the Upper West Side
People exit The Belnord on the Upper West Side as the city continues the re-opening efforts following restrictions imposed to slow the spread of coronavirus on December 11, 2020 in New York City.Noam Galai/Getty Images
  • The murder mystery TV series "Only Murders in the Building" returned for a second season in June.

  • The fictional venue of the show's grisly murders — the Arconia — may be more rooted in reality than previously thought.

  • The buildings that inspired the Arconia are more than just ostentatious façades, coming with their own fair share of scandals.

Hulu's popular comedy "Only Murders in the Building" has captivated audiences with a modern take on a classic whodunit murder mystery, set in a lavish residence on the Upper West Side of New York.

Fresh off the heels of solving the murder of Tim Kono (Julian Cihi) in the first season, Charles Haden-Savage (Steve Martin), Oliver Putnam (Martin Short), and Mabel Mora (Selena Gomez) found themselves scrambling to clear their names after their ill-tempered building manager Bunny met a grisly demise right in Mabel's arms — but not without capturing every bit of their debacle in zingy soundbites for their podcast.

While the bloody murders and salacious scandals seem too ludicrous to be true, showrunner John Hoffman, who created the show with Martin, previously revealed in an interview with The New York Times that the notorious Arconia apartment building was inspired by a real-life building in the Upper West Side — the Belnord located on West 86th Street and Broadway.

"I was obsessed," Hoffman told The Times. "I knew we could make something as elevated as that amazing building. It's a cliché to say that the building itself is a character, but I like the challenge of getting beyond that cliché a bit."

"What pulls us out of our apartments to meet people? How well do you know your neighbors? Do you only connect when it's necessary?" he continued. "The ways in which we get pulled together when we live in these spaces is what's really interesting."

Though the Belnord does make an appearance in the popular Hulu whodunit series, there's another luxury apartment building on Broadway between 73rd and 74th Street that also may have served as inspiration, the name of which shares a closer likeness to the Arconia — the Ansonia.

But the Belnord and Ansonia are more than just their ostentatious façades — they come with their fair share of secrets and scandals, much like their fictional counterpart.

Upon being finished in 1909, the Belnord was thought to be one of the largest in the country — if not the world — complete with a half-acre interior courtyard touted as the biggest in Manhattan.

Selena Gomez at the film set of "Only Murders in the Building"
Selena Gomez is seen at the film set of the "Only Murders in the Building" TV series on February 25, 2021 in New York City.Jose Perez/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images

Source: The New York Times

Some notable residents of the building include Academy award-winning actor Walter Matthau, Nobel Prize-winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Lee Strasberg, dubbed the father of method acting, who was often visited by his protégé Marilyn Monroe.

A little over half a century after it was finished, the Belnord was plagued by poor maintenance — the limestone exterior was crumbling, ceilings were collapsing, and the vast courtyard had become an overgrown jungle. Even stalactites had formed in the basement, The Times reported in 1980.

Source: The New York Times

Management of the building was doing no better than its deteriorating exterior. Owner Lillian Seril would refuse to fix the simplest of issues in the building — forcing some residents to bring their own refrigerators when appliances were broken — and even sued tenants and the landlord association after she was ejected from the organization.

The Belnord 225 W. 86th St.
Atmosphere at EXTELL DEVELOPMENT COMPANY Celebrates the 100th Anniversary of The BELNORD at The Belnord 225 W. 86th St. on September 18, 2008 in New York City.Amber De Vos/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

Source: The New York Times

Seril's bad rap as landlord of the property sparked, in 1978, what became the longest rent strike in the city's history, ending in 1994 after 38-year-old developer Gary Barnett bought the building. But Barnett couldn't even save the building after he stopped making mortgage payments, prompting the city to classify the Belnord as "distressed."

Source: The New York Times

A new group of investors took over after Barnett's Belnord got a makeover, converting the building into the high-end luxury condominiums that it's known for today. The architect who spearheaded the renovation dubbed it as "a very high-class Botox treatment."

The Belnord plaza
Atmosphere at EXTELL DEVELOPMENT COMPANY Celebrates the 100th Anniversary of The BELNORD at The Belnord 225 W. 86th St. on September 18, 2008 in New York City.Amber De Vos/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

Source: The New York Times

Though the popular whodunit mystery show was filmed at the Belnord, another nearby apartment building could easily serve as inspiration for the Arconia's outrageous and salacious nature — the hotel-turned-lavish-residency the Ansonia.

Ansonia Hotel
View of the Ansonia Hotel in Manhattan's Upper West Side neighborhood, New York, New York, April 18, 2013.Oliver Morris/Getty Images

Source: Vanity Fair

The 17-story building houses around 400 units comparable in magnificence to the Belnord — a 3,000-plus square-foot, four-bed, three-bath unit in the building is listed for almost $9,000,000. Previous tenants include baseball hall-of-famer Babe Ruth and boxer Jack Dempsey.

Source: Vanity Fair

New Yorker William Earl Dodge Stokes set his sights on the Ansonia in the late 1800s, which at that point was nestled on a block of boarding houses and taverns. And the land he purchased to develop the property on previously belonged to the New York Orphan Asylum.

Engraved postcard of the Ansonia building located between Broadway and West 73rd Street, New York City, New York, 1911.
Engraved postcard of the Ansonia building located between Broadway and West 73rd Street, New York City, New York, 1911.Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Source: Vanity Fair

When the building was finished in 1904, the Ansonia's over-the-top splendor was complete with a Turkish baths, bank, barbershop, and tailor on-site — even live seals in the fountain.

Ansonia Hotel, Fountain Room
Ansonia Hotel, Fountain Room, New York, New York, 1919.Museum of the City of New York/Byron Co. Collection/Getty Images

Source: Vanity Fair

But fountain-dwelling seals weren't the only animals to grace the grounds of the Ansonia. Stokes himself owned four geese and a pig as pets, while the roof became home to ducks, six goats, a bear, and 500 chickens. The Department of Health called Stokes' wildlife operation "farm in the sky" in 1907, though he continued to illegally house animals in the property.

Source: Vanity Fair

Apart from hundreds of live animals, the Ansonia also was home to some dodgy characters as well, including infamous racketeer Al Adams, aka the "Meanest Man in New York," who was found dead by a bullet in Suite 1579. His death was ultimately deemed a suicide, though the coroner initially said he was murdered. The prime suspect? Stokes, over an unpaid debt.

Ansonia Residential Hotel Building
Ansonia Residential Hotel Building, New York City, USA, circa 1905.Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Sources: Vanity Fair, The New York Times

Though Stokes dodged the bullet of responsibility for Adams' death, he was shot three times in the legs by his 22-year-old showgirl mistress, Lillian Graham. She claimed the Ansonia proprietor attacked her for refusing to return his racy love letters, but Stokes claimed she shot him because he refused to comply with her blackmail request for $25,000.

Sources: Vanity Fair, The New York Times

On top of a literal murder in the building, the Ansonia also served as the venue where the deal to rig the 1919 World Series took place. Chick Gandil, first baseman for the Chicago White Sox, reportedly met with someone who worked for gambling king Arnold "The Big Bankroll" Rothstein to cut a $20,000 deal to throw the World Series against Cincinnati Reds, in a debacle that shook the sports world dubbed the "Black Sox Scandal."

A banner reading 'Cincinnati Reds 1919 Champions of the World', after the team won the 1919 World Series.
A banner reading 'Cincinnati Reds 1919 Champions of the World', after the team won the 1919 World Series.FPG/Getty Images

Source: The New York Times

After Stokes died of pneumonia, he passed down the hotel to his son, who had little interest in the property and sold it to a landlord who later declared bankruptcy. The property was later auctioned and bought by Jacob Starr for a measly $500,000 — though the local sign maker had no intention of keeping up the property and instead turn it into a business venture.

Sources: Vanity Fair, The New York Times

In the 1960s, Starr leased the building to actor Steve Ostrow, who turned the hotel's basement swimming pool into the world's most influential gay cabaret club known as the Continental Baths, with performers including Barry Manilow and Bette Midler.

Sources: Vanity Fair, The Guardian

After the Continental Baths closed in 1977, infamous swinger's sex club Plato's Retreat opened in its stead, featuring "clothes" optional disco, a 50-person jacuzzi, and a backgammon lounge.

Swimming pool area at Plato's Retreat sex club
Swimming pool area at Plato's Retreat sex club in the basement of the Ansonia Hotel.Robert Rosamilio/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Source: Vanity Fair

As time took its toll on the Ansonia, the residents fought to preserve the building after Starr refused to maintain it, eventually appealing to the Landmarks Preservation Commission to landmark the building. Investors swarmed the building in the 1970s, buying out disgruntled residents and turning the property into the luxury condominiums its known for today.

Ansonia Hotel in New York
View (looking southwest from Broadway) of the Ansonia Hotel (2109 Broadway, between West 73rd and 74th streets, by William Earle Dodge Stokes and Paul El Duboy), Manhattan's Upper West Side neighborhood, New York, New York, May 5, 2013.Oliver Morris/Getty Images

Source: Curbed NY

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