Fans of the Hulu series “Only Murders in the Building,” returning for its second season this week, will know the building at the center of the drama as the Arconia, where Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez are 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 has been making headlines for over a century.
From the beginning, the Belnord was a newsmaker – a building of excess, a home for hyperbole. When it was completed in 1909 and took up an entire city block at West 86th Street and Broadway, the architect boasted that it was the largest apartment building in the country, if not the world. Newspapers, including this one, touted the courtyard as Manhattan’s largest—half an acre of open space, with a garden and lawn “for a dozen kids to romp on,” topped by a lavish, tiered marble fountain.
They marveled at the spacious rental apartments, 175 of them, each 15 meters deep, stretching from street to courtyard, with interior decoration “in the style of Louis XVI” – pale painted paneling and “harmonic silk” on the walls – and the most up-to-date modern conveniences. The refrigerators had ice machines, so no ice cream man would ever enter the Belnord, as one newspaper put it. On the roof, each apartment had its own laundry, a low-tech luxury with a bathtub, ironing board and clothesline – for the convenience of the housekeeper.
It would be its own city, this newspaper noted, with a population of more than 1,500. Over the years, there were notable tenants: Lee Strasberg, the dictatorial father of Method acting, who was often visited by his shy protégée Marilyn Monroe; Walter Matthau, when he was an aspiring theater actor with a young family; the 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 across the courtyard in a three-piece suit.
But in the 1970s, that city was in chaos. The ornate limestone and terracotta structure was crumbling, the roof was leaking and the plumbing was cracked. Ceilings collapsed. Stalactites had formed in the basement, DailyExpertNews reported in 1980. The fountain had been broken for years, and the yard was an enclosed jungle, off limits to residents.
The building’s owner, Lillian Seril, would earn the dubious distinction of being one of the city’s worst landlords: in every way both litigious and recalcitrant, refusing to solve even the simplest of problems, but energetic enough to not only to sue its tenants, but also its tenants. also the association of landlords who kicked her out for not paying her dues. (Renters recalled buying their own refrigerators and smuggled them in with the help of sympathetic construction staff, because Ms. Seril wouldn’t allow their broken appliances to be repaired or replaced.)
The residents of the Belnord, many of whom paid just a few hundred dollars a month for their huge, home-like apartments, organized and rioted. In 1978, they began what would become the longest rent strike in the city’s history.
During the 16 years that it lasted, the battle in Belnord 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’d brokered collapsed. “I am confident that the tenants and owner will sue the building to death,” he said. A city official compared the situation to the siege of Beirut.
The battle ended in 1994 when developer Gary Barnett, then only 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 apartment with housing benefits for herself — at her death, in 2004, she was paying just $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, the city’s first super-tall tower, angering conservationists, urban planners and community groups. But in those years he was a hero. The Belnord was his first Manhattan property, and he would spend $100 million to prop it up.
He struck several deals with individual tenants as he attempted to convert the property into a luxury rental building, with some apartments rented for up to $45,000 a month. For a rabbi and his family who paid $275 for a 4,000-square-foot apartment, Mr. Barnett bought a house in suburban New Jersey. Then there was the penthouse dweller who craved the desert: He flew her to Las Vegas to pick out a house with a pool, arranged the purchase, and paid her moving expenses. Other tenants chose to keep their low rents but agreed to swap their large 11-room apartments for smaller ones.
Barnett once joked that the fountain he had resuscitated at enormous expense—a project that required dismantling and taken away for repair—was the fountain of youth, because no one ever seemed to die in the Belnord.
“It was a labor of love to restore that building,” he said recently. “But I didn’t really understand what I was getting into. It was quite a picture.”
In 2015, Mr. Barnett was out of the picture, in a deal reportedly worth $575 million.
Like everything else in the Belnord, the terms of Mr. Barnett’s mortgage were problematic, and for a time, after he stopped paying the loan, the city classified the property as “distressed.” (The calculation of the building’s debt and rental income was never quite right.) And so a new group of investors — whose cast kept changing as several players dropped out due to insolvency, lawsuits, and other calamities — jumped in to take the place into a high. -end condominium, converting the approximately 100 available apartments into show places with Italian kitchens sheathed in marble.
Robert AM Stern, the architect whose firm handled the remodel, described the process as “a very high-quality Botox treatment.”
Prices for the remodeled units ranged from about $3.6 million to over $11 million, although some renters bought their own apartments at deep discounts. After a rocky start, the apartments are now selling solidly and keeping pace with the high-end market in the city, 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 co-hosted the show with Mr. Martin created, was elated and stunned that he had scored the spot for his production, especially in the midst of a pandemic. While the atmospheric apartments of the characters of Mr. Martin, Mr. Short and Mrs. Gomez were built on a sound stage, the story needed a building like the Belnord, with its grand appointments and panopticon of a courtyard.
“I was obsessed,” Mr. Hoffman said. “I knew we could make something as tall as that amazing building. It’s a cliche to say the building itself is a character, but I like the challenge of going a little beyond that cliche. What draws us out of our apartments to meet people? How well do you know your neighbors? Do you only join when necessary? The ways we come together when we live in these spaces is what’s really interesting.”
On a Friday evening in early June, Debbie Marx, a Latin teacher and long-time resident of Belnord, led a visitor through her unrenovated classical seven, the winding, book-lined corridors, a time capsule dating 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. Mrs. Marx moved back into her childhood apartment in the late 1980s, when she was pregnant with her first child and her mother lived there alone. The father of Mrs. Marx had died in 1978, in a sense the victim of the strife in Belnord, after suffering a heart attack in the courthouse during a hearing with his co-tenants.
Mrs. Marx recalled growing up in the building – playing handball in the courtyard, which had been forbidden by Mrs. Seril, and slipping through the bars of the gate into the forbidden garden, by then a riot of shrubs and trees. She had her own gang in the courtyard, with Walter Matthau’s daughter Jenny and others, but their transgressions were mild: taking the hat from a doorman, getting the service elevator, dropping a single water bomb.
“It’s like an archaeological site,” Richard Stengel said of the building. “The further you dig in, 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 that had been charred by a fire and had been vacant for years. (If you see Mr. Stengel on MSNBC, where he contributes, with a scarlet bookshelf behind him, he’s broadcasting from his apartment on the Belnord.)
John Scanlon, the scheming PR man who died in 2001, was also a 1990s tenant. At the time, Mr. Scanlon was embroiled in another long-running New York City real estate battle: Trump’s first divorce. (He was Ivana Trump’s spokesperson.)
Just like mr. Stengel was Mr. Scanlon joined a Belnord demographic that you might call adjacent literature and publishing. He liked to tease Mr. Stengel, then editor of Time magazine, when they collided in the courtyard: “How does it feel to be on the cutting edge of the passé?”
Previous waves of tenants have included Jewish European emigrants, unreconstructed 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 arrived 35 years ago with his wife, Deborah, a retired Estee Lauder executive, and soon formed what became known. as the Belnord 18, one of several splinter groups of building tenants who tried to negotiate with Ms. Seril. “There were these wonderful aging leftists who had been there for years – and fought against Ms Seril for years.”
In many cases, those tenants had inheritance rights for their children. So despite the influx of condo buyers, Mr. Krulewitch said, the Belnord is a city that still has — though barely — a population more culturally diverse than the monolithic wealthy class that has taken over much of Manhattan.
As Mr. Krulewitch put it, “It was quite an adventure.”
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