Fans of the Hulu series “Only Murders in the Building,” which returns for its second season this week, know the building at the center of the drama as Arconia, where Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez play an unlikely trio of residents. who become amateur sleuths with a podcast. But the Renaissance-style apartment building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side is actually called the Belnord, and it’s been in the news for more than a century.
From the outset, the Belnord was a newsmaker – an edifice of excess, a home for hyperbole. When it was completed in 1909, covering a full city block at West 86th Street and Broadway, the architect boasted that it was the tallest apartment building in the country, and possibly the world. Newspapers, including this one, touted the inner courtyard as the largest in Manhattan – half an acre of open space, with a garden and lawn “for about twenty children to frolic in” , crowned with an abundant marble fountain on several levels.
They marveled at his vast rental apartments, 175 of them, each 50 feet deep, stretching from the street to the courtyard, with interior decoration “in the style of Louis XVI” – pale painted paneling and “harmoniously dyed silks” on the walls – and the latest modern conveniences. The refrigerators had ice makers, so no ice cream vendor would ever invade the Belnord, as one newspaper said. Up on the roof, each apartment had a private laundry room, a low-tech luxury that included a bathtub, ironing board, and clothesline — for her maid’s convenience.
It would be its own town, the newspaper noted, with a population of over 1,500. Over the years, there were notable tenants: Lee Strasberg, the dictatorial father of the method game, who was often visited by his shy protege Marilyn Monroe; Walter Matthau, when he was a promising stage 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 enjoyed jogging around the yard in a three-piece suit.
But in the 1970s, this town was in chaos. The ornate limestone and terracotta structure was crumbling, the roof was leaking and the plumbing was cracked. The ceilings were collapsing. 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, would earn the dubious distinction of being one of the worst landlords in town: evidently she was both litigious and recalcitrant, refusing to settle even the simplest of issues, but forceful enough to sue not only her tenants, but also the homeowners association that kicked her out for not paying her dues. (Tenants recall buying their own fridges and sneaking them in with the help of the friendly building staff because Ms. Seril wouldn’t allow their broken appliances to be repaired or replaced.)
The residents of Belnord, many of whom paid only a few hundred dollars a month for their huge house-like apartments, organized and rioted. In 1978, they began what would be the longest rent strike in the city’s history.
For the 16 years that it lasted, the Battle of Belnord was so contentious that a Housing Court judge ruled both sides deserved each other, before washing their hands of the case when a settlement that he had negotiated collapsed. “I’m confident the tenants and the landlord will plead the building to death,” he said. A city official compared the situation to the Beirut siege.
The battle 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, Ms. Seril insisted on keeping a 3,000-square-foot rent-controlled apartment for herself — when she died in 2004, she was paying just $450 a month.) A Decade Longer later, Mr. Barnett and his company, Extell Development, would build One57, the funnel-shaped blue glass skyscraper on West 57th that was the city’s first super-tall tower, and in doing so would incur the ire of the curators, planners and civic groups. But in those years he was a hero. The Belnord was his first Manhattan property, and he would spend $100 million to shore it up.
He struck various deals with individual tenants as he tried to turn the place into a luxury rental property, with apartments renting for up to $45,000 a month. For a rabbi and his family paying $275 for a 4,000 square foot apartment, Mr. Barnett bought a house in suburban New Jersey. Then there was the penthouse dweller who dreamed of the desert: He flew her to Las Vegas to pick out a house with a pool, arranged her purchase, and paid for her moving expenses. Other tenants have opted to keep their rents low, but have agreed to swap their sprawling 11-room apartments for smaller ones.
Mr Barnett once joked that the fountain he resurrected at great expense – a project which involved taking it apart and transporting it for repair – was the fountain of youth, because no one ever seemed to die in Belnord .
“It was a labor of love to restore this building,” he said recently. “But I didn’t really understand what I was getting into. It was quite an image.
In 2015, Mr Barnett was out of the picture, in a deal worth $575million.
Like everything else in Belnord, the terms of Mr Barnett’s mortgage had been problematic and, for a time, after it stopped repaying the loan, the town listed the property as ‘distressed’. (The calculation of the building’s debt and its rental income never quite added up.) And so a new group of investors rushed in – whose cast kept changing, while various actors were dropping out due to insolvency, lawsuits, and other calamities — to transform the place into an upscale condominium, turning the hundred or so available apartments into storefronts with marble-clad Italian kitchens.
Robert AM Stern, the architect whose firm handled the conversion, described the process as “a very high class Botox treatment”.
Prices for renovated units ranged from around $3.6 million to over $11 million, although some tenants purchased their own apartments at very favorable prices. After a rocky start, condos are now selling quickly, keeping pace with the city’s high-end market, said veteran property and market appraiser Jonathan Miller.
And now the Belnord is in the limelight again, thanks to the Hulu series. John Hoffman, who created the show with Mr. Martin, was thrilled and stunned to have marked the place for his production, especially in the midst of a pandemic. While the atmospheric apartments of Mr. Martin’s characters Mr. Short and Mrs. Gomez were built on a soundstage, the story needed a building like the Belnord, with its grand appointments and court panopticon.
“I was obsessed,” Mr. Hoffman said. “I knew we could create something as lofty as this incredible building. It’s a cliché to say that the building itself is a character, but I like the challenge of going a bit beyond that cliché. is it what gets us out of our apartments to meet people? How well do you know your neighbors? Do you only connect when necessary? The way we bond when we live in these spaces is what’s really interesting.
On a Friday evening in early June, Debbie Marx, a Latin teacher and longtime Belnord resident, led a visitor through her unrenovated classic seven, its winding, book-lined hallways, a time capsule from 1959, the year when her parents moved in. His father, Josef Marx, was an oboist and musicologist who had his own music publishing company; his mother, Angelina, had been a ballerina. Ms Marx moved back to her childhood apartment 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, a victim, of sorts, of the Battle of Belnord, after suffering a heart attack at the courthouse during a hearing with his roommates.
Ms Marx remembers growing up in the building – playing handball in the yard, which was forbidden by Ms Seril, and slipping through the bars of the fence to the forbidden garden, then a riot of shrubs and of trees. She had her own gang in the yard, with Walter Matthau’s daughter, Jenny, and others, but their transgressions were minor: ripping off a doorman’s hat, commandeering the service elevator, dropping a water bomb.
“It’s like an archaeological site,” Richard Stengel said of the building. “The deeper you bury yourself, the more different culture and history you get.”
Mr. Stengel, the author, journalist and former State Department official, has been a tenant since 1992, when he moved into an apartment charred by fire and left vacant for years. (If you see Mr. Stengel on MSNBC, where he’s a contributor, with a dark red bookshelf behind him, he’s broadcasting from his apartment at Belnord.)
John Scanlon, the shrewd public relations man who died in 2001, was also a tenant in the 1990s. Around this time, Mr. Scanlon was embroiled in another long-running real estate battle in New York: Trump’s first divorce. (He was Ivana Trump’s spokesperson.)
Like Mr. Stengel, Mr. Scanlon was part of a Belnord demographic that you might call literary and editorial adjacent. He liked to tease Mr. Stengel, then editor of Time magazine, when they bumped into each other in the yard: “How does it feel to be on the cutting edge of the past?
The first waves of tenants included European Jewish émigrés, unreconstructed socialists and dozens of psychoanalysts.
“When we moved in, it felt like we were in an Eastern European shtetl,” said Peter Krulewitch, a property investor who arrived 35 years ago with his wife, Deborah, a business executive. Estee Lauder’s retirement, and soon formed what became known as Belnord 18, one of several dissident groups of apartment building tenants who attempted to negotiate with Ms. Seril. “There were these wonderful aging southpaws who had been there for years – and who had fought Ms. 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 town that still has – albeit barely – a more culturally diverse population than the monolithic wealthy class that took over a much of Manhattan.
As Mr. Krulewitch said, “it was quite an adventure”.
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