The Wild History of the Real ‘Only Murders’ Building

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The Wild History of the Real ‘Only Murders’ Building

Fans of the Hulu series Only Murders in the Building, which returns this week for its second season, will know the building at the center of the drama as Arconia, which stars Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez as an unlikely trio of residents who co-star become amateur detectives in a podcast. But the Renaissance-style apartment building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side is actually called Belnord and has been making headlines for more than a century.

From the start, the Belnord has been a newsmaker – a building of excess, a home for exaggeration. When it was completed in 1909, occupying an entire block of West 86th Street and Broadway, the architect boasted that it was the tallest apartment building in the country, and perhaps the world. Newspapers, including this one, touted the courtyard as the largest in Manhattan — a half-acre of open space with a garden and lawn “on which twenty children frolic,” topped by a lush, tiered marble fountain.

They marveled at his spacious rental apartments, 175 of them, each 50 feet deep, stretching from the street to the courtyard, with “Louis XVI style” interiors – pale, painted paneling and “harmoniously toned silks” on the walls – and the latest modern conveniences. The fridges had ice machines, so no ice cream man would ever enter the Belnord, one newspaper said. On the roof, each apartment had its own laundry facility, a low-tech luxury that included a bathtub, ironing board, and clothesline—for the convenience of your own maid.

It would be its own city, this newspaper noted, with a population of more than 1,500. Over the years there have been notable tenants: Lee Strasberg, the dictatorial father of Method acting, who was often visited by his shy protégé Marilyn Monroe; Walter Matthau as an up-and-coming theater actor with a young family; actor Zero Mostel, who played Tevye in the original Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof; and Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Nobel Prize-winning author who liked to jog around the yard in a three-piece suit.

But in the 1970s, this city was in chaos. The ornate limestone and terracotta structure was crumbling, the roof was leaking and the plumbing cracked. Ceilings collapsed. Stalactites, the New York Times reported in 1980, had formed in the basement. The fountain had been broken for years, and the garden was a fenced jungle off-limits to residents.

The building’s owner, Lillian Seril, earned the dubious reputation of being one of the worst landlords in town: by all accounts, she was both argumentative and unruly, refusing to solve even the simplest of problems but energetic enough not to not only suing her tenants, but her tenants as well, including the Landlords Association, which threw her out because she didn’t pay her dues. (Tenants recalled buying their own refrigerators and smuggling them in with the help of understanding building staff because Mrs. Seril would not allow their broken units to be repaired or replaced.)

The residents of Belnord, many paying only a few hundred dollars a month for their huge, house-like apartments, organized and revolted. In 1978, they began the longest rent strike in the city’s history.

In the 16 years it lasted, the Belnord battle was so contentious that a housing court judge declared the two sides deserved each other before washing his hands off the case when a settlement he brokered collapsed. “I am convinced that the tenants and the owner will sue the building to death,” he said. A city official compared the situation to the siege of Beirut.

The struggle ended in 1994 when developer Gary Barnett, then just 38, bought the building with a group of investors for $15 million. (As part of the deal, Mrs. Seril insisted on keeping a 3,000-square-foot rent-controlled apartment for herself—at her death in 2004, she was paying just $450 a month.) A decade later, Mr. Barnett and his company, Extell Development, built One57, the funnel-shaped blue glass skyscraper on West 57th, the city’s first supertall tower, drawing the ire of preservationists, city planners and civic groups. But in those years he was a hero. The Belnord was his first Manhattan property, and he spent $100 million to shore it up.

He made various deals with individual tenants as he attempted to turn the home into a luxury rental property, with some apartments renting for as much as $45,000 a month. Mr. Barnett bought a house in suburban New Jersey for a rabbi and his family who paid $275 for a 4,000-square-foot apartment. Then there was the penthouse dweller who longed for the desert: He flew her to Las Vegas to look for a house with a pool, arranged the purchase, and paid for her moving expenses. Other tenants have chosen to keep their low rents, but have agreed to trade their huge 11-bedroom apartments for smaller ones.

Mr Barnett once joked that the fountain, which he had revived at enormous expense – a project that required it to be dismantled and carted away for repairs – was the Fountain of Youth because no one ever seemed to die in the Belnord.

“It was a labor of love to restore this building,” he said recently. “But I didn’t really understand what I was getting myself into. It was quite an image.”

By 2015, Mr. Barnett had disappeared from the scene with a $575 million deal.

Like everything else in the Belnord, the terms of Mr. Barnett’s mortgage were problematic, and after he stopped making loan payments, the city listed the property as “distressed” for a time. (The calculus of the building’s debt and its rental income never quite worked out.) And so a new group of investors — whose lineup was ever-changing as various players dropped out due to bankruptcy, lawsuits, and other disasters — rushed in to address the place into a high-end condominium and converting the approximately 100 available apartments into showcase locales with Italian kitchens in marble.

Robert AM Stern, the architect whose office carried out the remodeling, described the process as “a very high quality Botox treatment”.

Prices for the renovated units ranged from about $3.6 million to more than $11 million, though some renters bought their own homes at deep discounts. After a rocky start, the condos are now selling fast and keeping pace with the city’s high-end market, said Jonathan Miller, the veteran real estate and market appraiser.

And now the Belnord is back in the spotlight thanks to the Hulu series. John Hoffman, who created the show with Mr. Martin, was delighted and stunned to have been given the space for his production, especially in the midst of a pandemic. While the atmospheric homes of the characters of Mr. Martin, Mr. Short, and Ms. Gomez were built on a soundstage, the story needed a building like the Belnord, with its grand decor and courtyard panopticon.

“I was obsessed,” said Mr. Hoffman. “I knew we could create something as grand as this amazing building. It’s a cliché to say that the building itself is a character, but I like the challenge of breaking that cliché a bit. What draws us out of our homes to meet people? How well do you know your neighbors? Do you connect only when necessary? The way we get drawn together living in these spaces is really interesting.”

On a Friday evening in early June, Debbie Marx, a Latin teacher and longtime Belnord resident, showed a visitor around her unrenovated Classic Seven, whose winding, book-lined hallways were a time capsule from 1959, the year her parents moved in. Her father, Josef Marx, was an oboist and musicologist who had his own music publishing company; Her mother Angelina had been a ballerina. Ms. Marx moved back into her childhood home in the late 1980s when she was pregnant with her first child and her mother lived there alone. Ms Marx’s father had died in 1978, somewhat a victim of the Battle of Belnord, after suffering a heart attack in the courthouse during a hearing with his roommates.

Ms Marx recalled growing up in the building – playing handball in the courtyard, which Ms Seril had forbidden, and slipping through the bars of the fence into the enclosed garden, which was then a riot of shrubs and trees. She had her own court gang with Walter Matthaus’ daughter Jenny and others, but her transgressions were mild: she stole a doorman’s hat, confiscated the freight elevator, and dropped the odd depth charge.

“It’s like an archaeological site,” Richard Stengel said of the building. “The further you dig, the more you get a different culture and history.”

Mr. Stengel, the author, journalist and former State Department official, has been a tenant since 1992, when he moved into an apartment charred by a fire and vacant for years. (If you catch Herr Stengel on MSNBC, where he’s starring with a deep red bookshelf behind him, he’s broadcasting from his apartment in the Belnord.)

John Scanlon, the wily PR man who died in 2001, was also a ’90s-era renter. At the time, Mr. Scanlon was embroiled in another long-running real estate battle in New York City: the first Trump divorce. (He was Ivana Trump’s spokesperson.)

Like Mr. Stengel, Mr. Scanlon belonged to a Belnord demographic that might be described as literary and publishing. He liked to tease Mr. Stengel, who was then the editor of Time magazine, when they clashed in the courtyard: “How does it feel to be at the top of the passé?”

Previous waves of renters have included Jewish European émigrés, unconstructed socialists, and dozens of psychoanalysts.

“When we moved in, it had the feel of an Eastern European shtetl,” said Peter Krulewitch, a real estate investor who came here 35 years ago with his wife Deborah, a retired Estee Lauder executive, and soon founded what became known as Belnord 18 , one of the many splinter groups of tenants who tried to negotiate with Mrs. Seril. “There were these wonderful aging leftists who had been there for years – and fought Mrs. Seril for years.”

In many cases, these tenants had inheritance rights for their children. So, despite the influx of condo buyers, Mr. Krulewitch said, Belnord is a city that still has — if only marginally — a population more culturally diverse than the monolithic, affluent class that has taken over much of Manhattan.

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

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