Real Estate

The Wild History of the Real ‘Only Murders’ Building

Fans of the Hulu sequence “Only Murders in the Building,” which returns for its second season this week, know the constructing at the middle of the drama as the Arconia, the place Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez play an unlikely trio of residents who grow to be novice sleuths with a podcast. But the Renaissance-style residence constructing on the Upper West Side of Manhattan is definitely referred to as the Belnord, and it has been making headlines for greater than a century.

From the get-go, the Belnord was a newsmaker — an edifice of extra, a house for hyperbole. When it was completed in 1909, overlaying a full metropolis block at West 86th Street and Broadway, the architect boasted that it was the largest residence constructing in the nation, and possibly the world. Newspapers, together with this one, touted the inside courtyard as the largest in Manhattan — a half acre of open space, with a backyard and a garden “for a score of children to romp on,” topped with a bountiful, tiered marble fountain.

They marveled at its capacious rental flats, 175 of them, every 50 toes deep, stretching from road to courtyard, with inside ornament “in the style of Louis XVI” — pale, painted paneling and “harmoniously tinted silks” on the partitions — and the latest fashionable conveniences. The fridges had ice machines, so no iceman would ever invade the Belnord, as one paper put it. On the roof, every residence had a non-public laundry, a low-tech luxurious that included a bathtub, ironing board and clothesline — for the comfort of one’s maid.

It could be its personal metropolis, this paper famous, with a inhabitants of greater than 1,500. Over the years, there have been notable tenants: Lee Strasberg, the dictatorial father of Method appearing, who was usually visited by his shy protégée Marilyn Monroe; Walter Matthau, when he was an up-and-coming theater actor with a younger household; the actor Zero Mostel, who performed Tevye in the authentic Broadway manufacturing of “Fiddler on the Roof”; and Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Nobel Prize-winning creator, who preferred to jog round the courtyard in a three-piece go well with.

But by the Seventies, that metropolis was in chaos. The ornate limestone-and-terra-cotta structure was crumbling, the roof was leaking and the plumbing cracked. Ceilings had been collapsing. Stalactites, The New York Times reported in 1980, had shaped in the basement. The fountain had been damaged for years, and the backyard was a fenced-in jungle, off limits to residents.

The constructing’s proprietor, Lillian Seril, would earn the doubtful distinction of being one of the metropolis’s worst landlords: By all accounts, she was each litigious and recalcitrant, refusing to repair even the easiest points, however energetic sufficient to sue not solely her tenants but additionally the landlord affiliation that threw her out for not paying her dues. (Tenants recalled shopping for their very own fridges and sneaking them in with the assist of sympathetic constructing employees, as a result of Mrs. Seril wouldn’t permit their damaged home equipment to be repaired or changed.)

The Belnord’s residents, many of whom paid only a few hundred {dollars} a month for his or her huge, house-like flats, organized and revolted. In 1978, they started what could be the longest lease strike in the metropolis’s historical past.

For the 16 years that it went on, the Belnord battle was so contentious that one housing courtroom choose declared that the two sides deserved one another, earlier than washing his arms of the case when a settlement he had brokered collapsed. “I’m convinced the tenants and the owner are going to litigate the building to death,” he stated. A metropolis official likened the state of affairs to the siege of Beirut.

The battle resulted in 1994, when the developer Gary Barnett, who was then solely 38, purchased the constructing with a bunch of buyers for $15 million. (As half of the deal, Mrs. Seril insisted on retaining a 3,000-square-foot rent-controlled residence for herself — at her dying, in 2004, she was paying simply $450 a month.) A decade later, Mr. Barnett and his company, Extell Development, would build One57, the funnel-shaped, blue-glass skyscraper on West 57th that was the metropolis’s first supertall tower and, in so doing, incur the ire of preservationists, city planners and civic teams. But in these years, he was a hero. The Belnord was his first Manhattan property, and he would spend $100 million shoring it up.

He made varied offers with particular person tenants as he tried to show the place right into a luxurious rental constructing, with some flats that leased for as much as $45,000 a month. For a rabbi and his household who had been paying $275 for a 4,000-square-foot residence, Mr. Barnett purchased a home in the New Jersey suburbs. Then there was the penthouse dweller who hankered for the desert: He flew her to Las Vegas to select a home with a pool, organized for its buy and paid her shifting bills. Other tenants opted to maintain their low rents, however agreed to swap their huge, 11-room flats for smaller ones.

Mr. Barnett as soon as joked that the fountain he had resuscitated at huge expense — a project that concerned disassembling and carting it away for repairs — was the fountain of youth, as a result of no one ever appeared to die at the Belnord.

“It was a labor of love to restore that building,” he stated lately. “But I didn’t really understand what I was getting into. It was quite a picture.”

By 2015, Mr. Barnett was out of the image, in a deal value a reported $575 million.

Like all the things else at the Belnord, the phrases of Mr. Barnett’s mortgage had been problematic, and for a time, after he stopped making the mortgage funds, the metropolis labeled the property as “distressed.” (The calculus of the constructing’s debt and its rental income by no means fairly added up.) And so a brand new group of buyers swooped in — the cast of which saved altering, as varied gamers dropped out as a result of of insolvency, lawsuits and different calamities — to show the place right into a high-end condominium, changing the 100 or so out there flats into showplaces with Italian kitchens sheathed in marble.

Robert A.M. Stern, the architect whose agency dealt with the conversion, described the course of as “a very high-class Botox treatment.”

Prices for the revamped items ranged from about $3.6 million to greater than $11 million, though some tenants purchased their very own flats at deep reductions. After a rocky begin, the condos are actually promoting briskly, protecting tempo with the high-end market in the metropolis, stated Jonathan Miller, the veteran property and market appraiser.

And now the Belnord is as soon as once more in the limelight, due to the Hulu sequence. John Hoffman, who created the present with Mr. Martin, was delighted and surprised to have scored the place for his manufacturing, notably in the center of a pandemic. While the atmospheric flats of Mr. Martin, Mr. Short and Ms. Gomez’s characters had been constructed on a sound stage, the story wanted a constructing like the Belnord, with its grand appointments and panopticon of a courtyard.

“I was obsessed,” Mr. Hoffman stated. “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? The ways in which we get pulled together when we live in these spaces is what’s really interesting.”

One Friday night in early June, Debbie Marx, a Latin instructor and longtime Belnord resident, led a customer by way of her unrenovated basic seven, its meandering, book-lined hallways a time capsule from 1959, the year her dad and mom moved in. Her father, Josef Marx, was an oboist and musicologist who had his personal music publishing company; her mom, Angelina, had been a ballerina. Ms. Marx moved again into her childhood residence in the late Nineteen Eighties, when she was pregnant along with her first little one and her mom was dwelling there alone. Ms. Marx’s father had died in 1978, a sufferer, in a manner, of the Belnord battle, having suffered a coronary heart assault in the courthouse throughout a listening to together with his fellow tenants.

Ms. Marx recalled rising up in the constructing — enjoying handball in the courtyard, which was forbidden by Mrs. Seril, and slipping by way of the bars of the fence to the off-limits backyard, by then a riot of shrubs and bushes. She had her personal courtyard gang, with Walter Matthau’s daughter Jenny and others, however their transgressions had been gentle: nicking the hat from a doorman, commandeering the service elevator, dropping the odd water bomb.

“It’s like an archaeological site,” Richard Stengel stated of the constructing. “The further you burrow down, you get a different culture and history.”

Mr. Stengel, the creator, journalist and former State Department official, has been a tenant since 1992, when he moved into an residence that had been charred by a fireplace and left vacant for years. (If you see Mr. Stengel on MSNBC, the place he’s a contributor, with a deep crimson bookshelf behind him, he’s broadcasting from his residence at the Belnord.)

John Scanlon, the wily public relations man who died in 2001, was additionally a ’90s-era tenant. In these days, Mr. Scanlon was embroiled in one other long-running New York City actual property battle: the first Trump divorce. (He was Ivana Trump’s spokesman.)

Like Mr. Stengel, Mr. Scanlon was a member of a Belnord demographic that you just may name literary-and-publishing adjoining. He preferred to tease Mr. Stengel, who was then the editor of Time journal, once they collided in the courtyard: “How does it feel to be on the cutting edge of the passé?”

Earlier waves of tenants included Jewish European émigrés, unreconstructed Socialists and scores of psychoanalysts.

“When we moved in, it had the feel of an Eastern European shtetl,” stated Peter Krulewitch, an actual property investor who arrived 35 years in the past together with his spouse, Deborah, a retired Estee Lauder government, and shortly shaped what turned often called the Belnord 18, one of the many splinter teams of constructing tenants who tried to barter with Mrs. Seril. “There were these wonderful aging lefties that had been there for years — and fought Mrs. Seril for years.”

In many instances, these tenants had succession rights for his or her youngsters. So regardless of the inflow of condominium consumers, Mr. Krulewitch stated, the Belnord is a metropolis that also — though simply barely — has a inhabitants extra culturally assorted than the monolithic moneyed class that has taken over a lot of Manhattan.

As Mr. Krulewitch put it, “It has been quite an adventure.”

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